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Posted on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 10:15 a.m.

Isalita's much-anticipated '100% Puro Mexico' experience lives up to the hype

By Kim Bayer

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
Isalita has a full bar with a host of the tequila drinks you would expect—some that sound especially interesting, like a frozen blood orange margarita—and even house-bottled cocktails. They also serve a few wines, and Mexican beer (Corona, Dos Equis, etc.) and soft drinks (Coke and Jarritos). I enjoyed both the Jamaica (a cherry-red, tart, hibiscus flower tea) and melon agua fresca (sweetened watermelon juice with lime), which tasted just like Mexico to me.

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.



Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 4:39 p.m.

I don't understand why Kim Bayer herself is not responding to these questions, comments and criticisms.


Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

"... little in common with the Tex-Mex cheese-covered belly bombs that most Americans know as "Mexican food." True, if you want over-priced "pretty" food, go here ... if you want good mexican food go to Chela's. My wife considered opening up her own "ethnic" restaurant after realizing what people would pay for a meal here. Nice personality though :)


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 7:48 p.m.

Kim I think you need to get your facts straight before writing an article.... If you have read previous articles about the restaurant then you would know that the menu was based around Adam's wife and her family who are all Mexican and you can not compare an Ann Arbor restaurant to a Chicago restaurant, two very different concepts. As far as you saying that the desserts do not match the other menu items, did you tell Adam this? Did you tell Brandon that you think there should be other choices on the menu as far as desserts? Probably not....... Oh and flan is not a Mexican dessert.... How rude can you be to ask about the wait staff being tipped? Ann should not let you write an article for them again. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this article, with very little research and poor grammar, would make it on the world wide web. I hope readers see past your ridiculousness and visit Isalita for themselves to see what the restaurant is all about.


Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 8:14 p.m.

She seems confused on a number of levels.

free form

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 2:58 a.m.

Jenny, you write as if this was a negative review. It is clearly not. I don't understand what you're so upset about.


Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 2:47 a.m.

Just because it may have originally come "from Spain and the Mediterrean area", doesn't mean it hasn't become a Mexican dessert. Pizza originally came from Italy, but I doubt many people object when it's called an American food.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 1:54 a.m.

I think what Kim was saying is that this is elevated street food. Street food through a big city lens. It was not intended as a knock. Reading the entire article, it is clear that she is quite enamoured of the place. As am I! I'm typing this on my ipad from a table in Isalita. I just tried the enchiladas roja for the first time, and I'm in love.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 10:36 p.m.

Flan is from Spain and the Mediterrean area...transfered to Mexico because of the Spaniards. My European friends eat it and so do the Mexican people I know.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 10:07 p.m.

Flan is not a Mexican dessert? Have you told the people of Mexico that? Because I've had plenty there!


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:59 p.m.

What a rude question to ask of Adam regarding Mr Ford. I hope his response was 'None of your flipping business!!'


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:53 p.m.

Seems your photographer figured out the best time to go, Kim. The place is practically empty in these photos.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 1:58 a.m.

It's true. We arranged for a photographer to take the photos right before they opened the doors for the day, since they've been so busy and we didn't want to be in their way.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:38 p.m.

The parenthesis is the death of proper grammar. Please, please stop destroying the English language with these articles, or at least learn to write first.

Kyle Mattson

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 7:43 p.m.

Thanks for the feedback M (although I can't guarantee you'll never see it again on the site).


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:13 p.m.

Asking the owner "what kind of tips" a customer leaves? I don't care if it's Bill Ford or Bill Gates, that's just tacky and unprofessional!


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5:24 p.m.

Well done.

Linda Peck

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5 p.m.

I got to "blue hairs" and decided not to continue to read this.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 1:37 p.m.

a2miguy asked me if I would use the term, and my answer was meant to convey that while of course I wouldn't dream of using that when addressing a group of seniors, I might have unthinkingly used it in my writing. What I thought I implied, but didn't sufficiently express, is that now that this has been brought to my attention I wouldn't dream of using the term "blue hairs" in any context. I appreciate people taking the time to express their opinion about the use of the term. I take language and its effect on people - intended or not - very seriously.


Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 11:35 a.m.

Jessica Webster, Regardless, this was an insulting term ("blue hairs")! ..and I took offense also!


Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 4:49 a.m.

I cannot comprehend any serious journalist breezily using the term "blue hairs" in a restaurant review. How offensive, and doubly offensive is the person trying to defend it.

free form

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 2:52 a.m.

Get a grip. It's a restaurant review not a hard hitting news report.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Feb 7, 2013 : 2:01 a.m.

You make a good point, a2miguy. While I can imagine breezily using the term in an article, I wouldn't address seniors that way in person. Definitely something to keep in mind for the future. Thank you.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:44 p.m.

The thing is, Jessica, people never "intend" to offend...or so they'll claim once someone calls them out. Would Kim so easily stand before a group of senior citizens and greet them, "Good morning, blue hairs!" ? Would you?

Jessica Webster

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5:45 p.m.

I do not think Kim intended for this to be a derogatory term. Rather, she was making a light-hearted reference to the fact that the senior citizen population has a reputation for eating earlier in the evening. Our apologies if this term was offensive.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5:13 p.m.

Wow. Is this an on-line newspaper or someone's cutesy blog?