Pork Crack

Michael Nagrant / 08.21.08

Every writer suffers from at least a touch of melancholy. As a food writer, though, my touches of depression are not from anything as pedestrian as the existential weight of the world. Rather, at least once a week or so, I freak out that I’ve discovered all there is to discover in the world of serious eats.

This usually happens late at night, when I’ve been co-opted by fatigue and a frozen pizza. I start counting mediocre tacos and limp burgers I’ve had over the year, just to find the handful of truly transcendent goodies here in Chicago. Somehow, I can ignore that there are more restaurants in Chicago–not even counting satellites like bakeries, food trucks, and artisanal groceries–than I can ever hope to visit in a lifetime. But, the burden still comes, as if someone told me pork disappeared from the planet entirely.

Inevitably, there’s always a new dish, a new bite that rouses me from my F. Scott Fitzgeraldean funk. This week’s cure comes courtesy of Isla Pilipina in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. As the name suggests, the restaurant is a celebration of culinary thrills from Manila–and the biggest of all is a Filipino-style fried, cured pork called tocino.

Basically, tocino is Filipino bacon, often seasoned in a variety of ways, such as with anise, water, salt, sugar, and pineapple juice, or cured with salt. It’s then fried or sauteed and served with a sweet, glistening orange glaze in a neon Vegas marquee hue.

The general rule for bacon–bacon is never bad–applies here. When I popped my first nugget into my mouth at Isla Pilipina, my wife and I both stared at each other wide-eyed and whooshed out simultaneous, totally primordial mmhh-like grunts.

Here, the tocino tastes like its glazed in foie gras (one of my other favorite foods). It’s uncanny, but there’s a slightly gamy, smoky, caramelized richness along the lines of the best seared duck liver lobe.

I asked our Isla Pilipina waitress if they poured foie gras fat over the pork, and she looked at me like I was Whitney Houston on a bender. I prodded further, but she assured me there was no foie, just a traditional cure she would not reveal. I haven’t returned yet to verify if this was a lucky fluke, but if it is, I’m heading straight to the nearest specialty market to pick up some foie and bacon, in an attempt to replicate the tocino feat.

Isla Pilipina

2501 West Lawrence, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-271-2988