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Posted on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

Mani Osteria owner plans to open 'Isalita' Mexican restaurant by December

By Lizzy Alfs


Owner Adam Baru, left, and chef Brendan McCall pictured inside the Isalita space in June.

Steve Pepple |

Adam Baru, owner of downtown Ann Arbor’s popular Mani Osteria, spent months trying to find the perfect name for his new Mexican restaurant opening on East Liberty Street.

It took a trip to Mexico, about two dozen different ideas and encountering copyright issues, but he finally landed on the right one: Isalita.

It’s not a real town in Mexico and it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact meaning behind the name. But, as Baru explains, his 5-year-old daughter’s name is Isabel, ‘ita’ indicates affection, and then he says, “We just added a letter.”

“I wanted it to feel like a place,” he said. “Isalita became really, just a fictitious place down in Mexico, but in my mind, it’s a lot of memories down there.”

Baru signed a lease for the 2,600-square-foot space next to his East Liberty Street pizza restaurant in May. He spent the last few months renovating and hopes to open Isalita in late November or December.

Currently, his team is putting a new copper storefront on the building and installing a kitchen and bar. The restaurant will have seating for about 90 people.

The menu — which is 90 percent complete — will have small plates of traditional Mexican street food. Baru and his chef, Brendan McCall, took a trip to Mexico over the summer for inspiration. They also worked with Philadelphia chef Arthur Cavalier.

“There are these outdoor markets in Mexico with little stands of mom and pop restaurants…they’re all using really fresh ingredients and might offer just a few things they do really well,” Baru explained.

“We’re taking sort of our favorites and putting it under one roof.”

Baru’s interest in Mexican food and culture dates back years. He takes frequent trips there to visit his wife Lucia’s family, and he also opened a large Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia for Iron Chef’s Jose Garces.

Like Mani, Baru said the food at Isalita will be fresh and light. Everything, including the corn tortillas, will be made in-house and will use locally sourced ingredients when possible. Because it’s a mix of small plates, menu items will be lower priced than his pizza restaurant.

“We’re going to do guacamole, obviously, but we’ll do four different varieties,” he said. “We’ll have 10 or 12 different varieties of tacos, with probably three to a plate, small, four-inch tacos.”

The tacos could range from $7 to $12 a plate. The idea, he said, is for each table to share several items.

Baru is looking to hire 20 to 25 employees to staff the new restaurant. There will be an open house job fair at Mani from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 12.

Because Isalita shares a roof with Mani, Baru expects a few employees to work between the two restaurants, while McCall will be able to lead the food at both. There will be a “nice synergy” between the two establishments, Baru said, where guests can have a drink or appetizer at one restaurant while waiting for a table at the other.

“The fact that this is next door (to Mani) and that we’ve had such a good 18 months made it a lot easier to make the jump into another restaurant so soon,” he said.

At the same time, the success Baru found with Mani in its first year — it has been recognized as one of Metro Detroit’s best new restaurants — sets the bar high for Isalita.

“It has to be great,” he said. “Obviously, I want it to be great for the guest experience, but my expectation for myself and the team is that we do it the right way and that we are great. That’s the bar we set for ourselves.”

Check out the Isalita Facebook page for updates on the restaurant.

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at



Tue, Nov 6, 2012 : 8:29 p.m.

$12 is a bit high for street food, but I work downtown and am looking to to try them. I hope to be able to see their menu soon.


Tue, Nov 6, 2012 : 3:30 a.m.

I shook Adams hand last time I went to Mani and thanked him for such a good meal. Can't wait for Isalita to open.

john P Kuclo

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 : 1:22 a.m.

buena suerte

Ricardo Queso

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 10:28 p.m.

This time, please spend a few more dollars on the seating. Drafting table stools from middle school just don't cut it.

Mike D.

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 10:25 p.m.

If Mani is any indication of what this team is capable of, Isalita will be great. It fills a real void in Ann Arbor; the only really good Mexican food in town today is from hole-in-the-wall taquerias. Tmaz and the like have great tacos, but I can't have a business dinner in a dive. Lizzy, keep covering places that are new, , interesting, and acclaimed. Some people will complain about anything.

Lizzy Alfs

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 : 1:06 a.m.



Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 10:22 p.m.

Brendan is so awesome...can't wait to try this place. Worth the trip (I moved out of town last year and really miss Mani).


Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 9:49 p.m.

Mani was a breath of fresh air downtown and another breath of fresh air wouldn't come amiss.. Welcome!

Atticus F.

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 9:30 p.m.

I'm not exactly sure why these people keep getting 'free advertising' from A2dotcom... It seems like this is the 4th or 5th time they have been mentioned. I've eaten there before, and I really didn't find the food that exceptional.


Tue, Nov 6, 2012 : 1:16 a.m.

Atticus, inquiring minds want to know, what local restaurants DO you find exceptional? I have eaten at Mani several times now, and it has been amazing every time. There is a reason it has made so many lists already. Also, can you explain their apparent disdain to the folks in Liberty Square? What have they done to indicate this?

Lizzy Alfs

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 9:44 p.m.

@Atticus F.: This is the second time I have written about the Mexican restaurant, after Baru signed a lease for the space in June. We usually cover restaurants when the lease is signed (from a real estate perspective) and then at some point before it opens, when more information about the business is released. As for Mani, the restaurant has received attention from both local and national publications as it landed "best of" lists and grew in popularity in the area. We think it deserves coverage. If you have story ideas of businesses that we're not covering, please feel free to email me: Thanks.

Atticus F.

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 9:35 p.m.

Also, I'm not a big fan of their distain towards the less fortunate who frequent Liberty Square. Nor am I a fan of their belief that they are somehow entitled above all others to run a food cart at Liberty Square, a PUBLIC park...


Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 9:06 p.m.

I love Mani's. I'm sure this new place will be good as well.

john doe

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 8:25 p.m.

While I love the idea of bringing authentic ethnic dishes to the US, I'm also disappointed at the costs. Yeah, the standard of living is higher here, but street food has always been cheap affordable snacks/meals that anyone could afford. While $7-12 isn't ridiculous, it's really not in the spirit of what street food is about.

Mike D.

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 10:29 p.m.

There are plenty of good taquerias in town I can recommend for street food at bargain prices. Tmaz is at the top of the list. Clearly, Isalita will be prettier inside, use more innovative ingredients, have full service, and feature a full bar. So it will cost more to eat there than at a taqueria. I'd say the "spirit" of street food is creative use of fresh ingredients, not just a low price.


Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 8:11 p.m.

Isalita is a fun name that does encourage the synergy with Mani -- the only question is how the new name will be applied to the Bank of Ann Arbor's "Out-of-town bankers think..." campaign. Looking forward to the opening!


Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 8:24 p.m.

Non-local banks think Isalita is a basketball coach in East Lansing... (It's ok, B of A2. You can steal it. No charge. Even though I work for a competitor.)