Some of Justin Thompson’s happiest childhood memories involve visits to his grandmother’s house. 

“She’d always have cookies ready for us,” Thompson recalls. “She’d be cooking in the kitchen when we came over. And no matter what, she was there for you: for a hug, for an ear to listen. She was an epitome of what love is.” 

Perhaps it was there that young Thompson learned that whenever there is love and kindness and social communion, home-cooked food is often a part of it – like a golden thread that binds the tapestry together. 

When he was sixteen, he got a job as a dishwasher at Mazzio’s Pizza. 

“I worked for gas money,” he says. “I got $4.50 an hour and gas was 87¢ a gallon. I thought I had it made.” 

After time spent studying at Holland Hall and the University of Oklahoma, Thompson started – and has remained – in the restaurant industry, with many milestones passed along the way. The first was creating and opening Ciao on Brookside, where he was chef and general manager. 

“It was the first time I put myself out there and hoped and prayed people would like it,” he says. 

Years later, Thompson opened a restaurant of his own, Juniper, now the flagship of his group. And he and his dad literally built it, framing walls, hanging sheetrock and doing all the woodwork. 

And now there’s Isla’s Kitchen. There have been many restaurants in his arsenal since Juniper, but this one is personal. 

“After all,” Thompson says, “I named it after my daughter, and she’s the most important person in my world.” 

They bake together, and he cooks her dinner most nights they spend together – and, Thompson says, she played a big part in creating her namesake restaurant by participating in food tastings. If the kids’ menu seems unusually lively, chock-full of games and activities and drawings of Tulsa landmarks to color in, it’s because Isla helped design it. 

“Isla’s is different,” Thompson says. “It’s family-accessible; hospitality is our focus, we want people to feel like they’re part of our family. The menu is Southern, and there’s a little bit of everything: dishes from Oklahoma, dishes from Kentucky, lots from Louisiana. We want to give people a taste of all the good things.” 

There’s gumbo, built around a long and carefully stirred roux colored a deep chocolate. There’s chicken fried steak, smothered pork chops, a fabulous shrimp and cheesy grits dish, bound together with a rich, creamy, sherry-fortified sauce. There’s jambalaya and Hoppin’ John – a Southern peas and rice dish. Smoked bologna is glazed with a tea-infused barbecue sauce. All the sauces, spice blends and just about everything else is made in-house. Overnight, there’s always chicken stock bubbling, building up flavor. There’s a delicious bananas foster bread pudding, but it also has to compete with a full (and changing daily) selection of home-baked cakes and pies. 

And you can even take some of the goodness home; there’s a market at the east end of Isla’s that offers treats from a panoply of local producers. They have cinnamon rolls from Savoy, sweets from Glacier Chocolate, Swan Dairy milk, and a whole freezer full of Robert Carnoske’s MASA empanadas. 

Some of these are Thompson’s competitors but, he says, “I’m a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ kinda guy. I want everyone to succeed and do well.” 

Thompson’s past successes have included elegant fine dining destinations and high-end steakhouses. So, how does it feel to open what Thompson describes as a “big, family-friendly Southern restaurant”? 

“My job is to be a creator, and sometimes it’s fun to change gears, do something different. It makes it challenging, but also rewarding,” he replies. “I’m enjoying my job these days.”

All photos by Stephanie Phillips

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