‘Tokwa’ and ‘pata’ to-go in Staten Island

Isla Pilipinas regulars enjoy some pleasantries before joining their families for lunch.

By Cristina DC Pastor

For Jersey City couple Leopoldo and Ravy Sanga, no bridge is too far to Staten Island’s newest destination.

Isla Pilipinas is the latest Filipino restaurant attempting to conquer New York. But instead of opening in the Manhattan familiar to many, owner Maggee Villanueva chose the lawn chair suburbia of Staten Island, home to about 12,000 Filipinos.

“I grew up here,” said Maggee, who graduated from the Staten Island College of Business. The Midland Beach section is where her family — husband Daniel Chen and their two daughters – lives.

On November 11, 2011 at 11 a.m., Maggee and her older brother, Abet, opened Isla and introduced the Middle America neighborhood to Philippine home-style cooking. Eleven-11-11-11, which adds up to eight, is an auspicious number in Chinese belief.

“We just thought, let’s do it,” she told The FilAm. “Of course, we did a bit of feng shui and numerology.”

Maggee and Abet (second from left) with staff Shay Mitzel and Emilio Perez. Not in photo are Cosette Malig, Euge Sarzosa and Marisse Panlilio. Photo: The FilAm

Maggee is not a total newbie in the food business. She and her husband Dan run a chain of successful Fushimi Japanese restaurants in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Before that, it was a Chinese Mexican restaurant that did not quite take off.

While Abet, one of two cooks, is pretty much confined to the kitchen, Maggee is one ball of energy. She takes orders, busses tables, serves, greets customers, entertains all sorts of questions about the menu. In between, she fusses when there’s not enough soda in the cooler and there are food crumbs on the floor.

“I’m very hands-on,” she said, the smile never leaving her face.

Isla is now becoming the Staten island “destination” that Maggee dreamed it would one day be. Many of their regulars are Staten and Brooklyn residents, and some, like the Sangas, come from Jersey City.

“Everything was very tasty,” said Ravy Sanga. “Nagustuhan namin yung barbecue, it’s very tender and not too salty. And the price was reasonable.”

From the array of dishes we sampled, two stood out: the ‘crispy pata’ and the ‘tokwa at baboy.’ The pork leg was the right amount of crisp and still steaming hot even as table conversation takes your attention off food for a while. Dig back into it and the skin remained pork-rind crisp and the meat still smoky tender and not rubbery. The secret, according to Abet, is precision — and honesty. A fresh piece of pork leg is cooked right before it is served. The deep fry is for a specific amount of time, which Abet is not disclosing.

“Some people pre-cook to tenderize the meat, then they re-cook before serving,” he explained. “That makes the skin hard.”

The golden fried tofu in the ‘tokwa at baboy’ was swimming in sweet vinegar. The tofu was not overfried and the vinegar not at all sour. Either I’ve been eating this dish in all its bad form and gotten used to it, or Isla has wonderfully altered a standard ‘pulutan.’

There’s more to this A-rated restaurant that’s worth a short drive or a pleasant ferry ride. The décor is tastefully pleasant, and the toilet clean and roomy. The customers seemed to know each other, and the vibe was that of a family party with everyone enjoying the delectable company and the food.

“They are our regulars,” explained Maggee.

Isla Pilipinas is located at 556 Tompkins Avenue, Staten Island. Call them at 718-447-4752 to make a reservation, to place an order or inquire about catering. Check out the menu and some dishes below.

Pork barbecue

Spring rolls

Cebu Lechon a la Isla. Food photos by Marisse Panlilio

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