Under the sea
The egg-carton shape is unmistakable. The building that is now Mariscos Las Islitas, a first-rate Mexican seafood place, was once a McDonald’s. The improvement is vast. Tucked among the labyrinthine detours that abound around Wells Avenue, Mariscos Las Islitas proudly serves Mariscos Estilo Nayarit, that is, seafood dishes from the Pacific coast Mexican state of Nayarit, and the food is much better than at anyplace where the golden arches still reign supreme.
The crowd is mostly Spanish-speaking—a good sign for quality when it comes to Mexican cuisine. There’s a great-looking mural of a serene island town identified as La Isla de Mexcaltitlan, Nayarit.
Four of us, Danielle and myself and our friends Tim and Nicole, went for lunch. Danielle was peeved at me for dragging her along to a seafood restaurant that did not have much to offer vegetarians. She had a glass of horchata ($1.50), the rice milk and cinnamon drink that tastes like the best iced chai latte you ever had.
Our waitress was incredibly nice and took our order in English. (I have, however, heard rumors that other servers at the restaurant aren’t as fluently bilingual, and a visit might provide opportunities to practice Español.)
They serve you enough chips and salsa, tortillas and crackers so that you wouldn’t even really need to order anything to walk away full, and the salsa is great—sweet, spicy and fresh.
As we were waiting, Tim gestured toward the television set, “Look they’re showing seafood on the TV.” The television was tuned to the Discovery Channel, which was indeed broadcasting images of underwater excitement—schools of fish accompanied by monotone Spanish. “That’s to make us hungrier.”
“Earlier there was a mouse,” said Nicole, “and that made me hungry—watching that little guy run around.”
“It’s too bad they don’t have any mouse tacos,” said Tim.
“Gross,” I said.
“Well, it really depends on the sauce,” said Tim.
“It’s very regional, too—you know, I would never order a mouse taco in New York,” said Nicole.
“Well! Half the time you get rat!” said Tim, exasperated.
Despite this unappetizing pre-lunch conversation, I was quite happy when the food arrived. I had the camorones diablo ($12.95 with rice, beans and tortillas), the devil shrimps, served with a spicy chipotle sauce; our waitress commended it as a good choice, and it was close to fantastic, though it was not quite as spicy as I had hoped.
Nicole ordered just one shrimp empanada ($2), and they brought her two for the same price. It was accompanied by another great sauce: what tasted like a mix of lime, jalapeño and cilantro. Nicole likened it to the best sort of secret recipe, “You want to know how to make it, but then again it’s kind of charming that you don’t know.”
Tim enjoyed his shrimp taco ($2.75), and Danielle had sides of rice and beans and then skipped straight to dessert: a tasty flan ($3).
Everything was quite good, and the servings were all generous. The environment is comfortable (we nursed our beers long after the meal was over), and the service exceptionally friendly. The menu has a number of intriguing choices (yet, for some unplanned reason, we all ordered shrimp). I’m excited to revisit and try some of the more exotic offerings, like the octopus tostada. Mariscos Las Islitas certainly offers a better environment and selection than the location did during its previous incarnation.