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Isla Pilipina is a Diamond in this Strip Mall's Rough

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Photographs: Lindsey Howald Patton

From the moment I saw this gorgeous bowl of soup, I began kicking myself for never giving Isla Pilipina more than a second glance. From the outside the place isn't much to look at, tucked as it is into a small strip of storefronts along Lawrence Avenue where the smell of Burger King's French fries lingers thickly in the air.

But once you get indoors, the cozy place has a young, fresh vibe with rock music, local art on the walls, and—if the laughing crowd of diners at an odd three o'clock last Wednesday are any indication—no problem drawing clientele. As for this sinigang? The traditional staple is a perfectly curated array of flavors and textures.

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Opt to eat it plain or with chicken (shown here, $8), pork, beef, shrimp, or the Filipino bangus or milkfish; any would fit in with the slightly peppery, tamarind-tart broth. An easily overlooked strength of the dish is how the vegetables' individual levels of doneness showcase each in their best light. The slow-roasted tomato is soft and sweet, practically melting into the soup, while the bell peppers, green beans, and bok choi stay crisp and crunchy.

If this dish is any indication of the menu at large, then Isla Pilipina is a strong contender for best Filipino food on the North Side. I'm not usually one for New Year's resolutions, but after my holiday travels, I plan to go back and find out.

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