Isalita's much-anticipated '100% Puro Mexico' experience lives up to the hype
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As an example of how much anticipation has accompanied the opening of Isalita, some local bloggers openly begged for an invitation to the friends and family opening. And just three days after the place opened, foodie friends were already texting to ask if we'd been. Situated next door to Italian sister restaurant, Mani Osteria, on East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, Isalita's electric energy does feel like the "100% Puro Mexico" of its tagline.
Incorporating the complex flavors and techniques of authentic Mexican cooking (like toasting, re-hydrating and grinding whole chiles and hand-making tortillas), Isalita's food has little in common with the Tex-Mex cheese-covered belly bombs that most Americans know as "Mexican food." At the same time, the carefully conceived and intricately executed "Mexican street food" small-plates menu is closer to the chef-driven offerings of places like the Frontera Grill in Chicago than the streetside menudo vendor in Guanajuato.
Isalita offers that distinctly American luxury of elevating an already varied and delicious cuisine with the best ingredients and resources that a chef can bring to bear. It's a recipe that worked for Mani and seems as though it's working just as well at Isalita — the place is usually packed.
Since Isalita doesn't accept reservations (except for parties of six or more), we thought we could easily slip in by going at the twilight hour preferred by blue-hairs looking for AARP specials. We were wrong. Our group, including two restaurant reviewers with partners in tow, arrived at what felt like spring break in Puerta Vallarta with the volume already on high. Told that the wait was about an hour, we bellied up to the backs of the people already at the bar.
341A E. Liberty St. Ann Arbor
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m.
- Plastic: All
- Liquor: Full bar
- Prices: Small plates inexpensive individually, but become expensive for a full meal. For example, $7-$12 for a plate of three small tacos
- Noise level: Loud
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Shouting to hear each other and huddled around a couple of bar stools with our drinks, we shared our first order of chips and truffled guacamole. Served with a dark and mysterious "huitlacoche escabeche" of gently pickled mushroomy topping, the rich avocado had a subtle but distinctive undercurrent of earthy truffle umami with tiny sparks of cilantro and jalapeno around the edges. Paired with warm corn chips freshly fried, I would have been happy just eating that all night.
Once we were finally seated at a table (that had been empty for nearly half an hour), our friendly and well-prepared server explained the menu to us, going over the nacho, ceviche, taco and "botanas de calle" (street food) options and offering spot-on recommendations. She also told us to expect two to three of the small plates per person, and that once we placed our order, the food would start coming "as soon as it feels like it," in no particular order as fast as the kitchen had it ready. And it did.
Like the truffled guacamole, other dishes that I'd heard recommended turned out to be excellent. For example, the silver dollar circles of hamachi ceviche surrounded by bright orange habanero sauce tasted like an afternoon by the sea in Ensenada. Served with fresh orange and pineapple salsa mixed with finely chopped cilantro and onion on top, only the ball of fresh lime granita in the middle was odd for being dessert-sweet (but still refreshing and yummy).
Highlights of the meal for me included the elote, grilled corn on the cob, blackened in spots, with its husk braided into a whimsical ponytail for a handle. Spread with chipotle mayonnaise and dusted with chile pequin, the corn was juicy, chewy and smoky from the grill with a pleasant tingle of heat from the chiles.
The duck flautas were filled with deeply savory shredded duck confit, rolled into tortilla cigars and deep-fried. Crowned with shredded lettuce and a party of spiky matchsticked radish, then squiggled with crema and strewn with bits of cotija cheese, I loved the contrast of textures, temperatures and flavors in this dish.
The miniature tacos at Isalita come three to a plate and they are remarkable in part because of the two staff members who make the 600-800 corn tortillas each day in-house, according to Chef Brendan McCall. All of the tacos that we tried were wonderful, and each had its own proponent at our table. I thought the al pastor (with a thick slice of guajillo-basted pork belly brightened with pickled pineapple) and the forest mushroom (with sliced shiitakes, corn, and huitlacoche), were especially memorable. The baja fish tacos (with chunks of fish deep fried in a crunchy coating of plantain and corn chip crumbs), and the carnitas (tender chunks of pork with sweet onion slices on top) were also delicious.
The bite-sized gorditas were unlike any I'd had before. These "little fatties" were tiny and delicate, deep-fried with a masa crust enclosing a cheesy filling of chipotle sauced chicken.
The queso fundido has four kinds of cheese (oaxaca, chihuahua, queso fresco and cheddar) ground together and melted in a small skillet (Chef McCall told me they use the same combination for their nachos). We got the house-made chorizo version, but with such a vibrant spectrum of other amazing flavors in the meal, this dish was just a bunch of melty cheese and did not stand out for me.
The enchiladas, a verde and a rojo version, were brand-new menu items when we were there. A single tortilla enclosed a crab and shrimp filling with a tart tomatillo sauce for the verde. And a face-slappingly spicy, but deeply flavorful, mole-inspired tomato-based sauce around a shredded chicken filling for the rojo.
The one place where I felt the menu was lacking was the desserts (aka Postres). Tres leches cake is usually all about the rich dairy goodness of the "three milks." But the Isalita version is a small round of cake incompletely soaked with sweetened milk and accompanied by a small amount of mango puree, a few kiwi pieces and a shower of toasted coconut. Although it was entirely edible, the disconnected components of fruit salad seemed to remove the focus on the pure dairy celebration that is the reason to order tres leches.
Even less inspired, the sundae had a couple of big scoops of vanilla ice cream with a small amount of delicious salted caramel sauce and teeth sticking candied pepitas, but was marred by a chocolate sauce that tasted like it was straight from the Hershey's tube.
It's hard to fault Isalita on their sweets, though. With a few exceptions, Mexico is not known for incredible desserts. But still, how about some wonderful flan, or a sweet ending inspired by cajeta or candied fruit? Or some delicious paletas in crazy flavors? There are lots of possibilities for the chef to employ his formidable talents, so I'm hopeful that this part of the menu will get the attention it deserves once the rest of the place is under control.
And speaking of getting the rest of the place under control, although they weren't playing any background music, the noise level was high enough to make conversation seriously difficult. That might explain the demographics that we observed there: serious foodies, young women and families with children seem to make up a large portion of Isalita's customer base. And we did have a Bill Ford sighting, too.
We asked owner Adam Baru what kind of tips the auto mogul leaves as Baru, with a look of both consternation and excitement, was canvassing his way back and forth across the crowded 130-seat dining room, stopping in to check on every table. Baru only laughed, saying he didn't know yet.
With the high level at which McCall's kitchen is functioning (McCall says he reads every customer comment card every night) and the fine service, it appears that Baru's biggest worry at the moment might be too much popularity.
I have heard some complaints regarding paying up to $12 for a small plate of mini-tacos, when for half that you could get an entire (probably delicious) meal at a nearby taqueria. I'd say the taqueria value proposition is entirely different from Isalita's. If a big meal at a low price is what you're looking for, you should probably not put on your club-hopping party dress to stop at Isalita.
However, if you're looking for a delicious, beautiful and delicate meal that will make you homesick for San Miguel de Allende (whether or not you've ever been there), along with fine service and a good chance to spot celebrities, you should head over to stand in line at Isalita.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.