A melting pot

Isabela’s Mexican and Italian Fonda

1119 21st St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

In a town overflowing with Mexican restaurants, in styles as varied as basic taqueria, Cal-Mex and nueva cocina, Isabela’s Mexican and Italian Fonda is something of a puzzlement. First of all, there’s the basic question: Is it Mexican, or isn’t it? Mexican comes first in the name, sure, but it’s followed quickly by Italian—an odd pairing of cuisines at first glance. It soon becomes apparent that there’s more than a hint of Spain thrown into the mix as well. Not only do the paprika-colored walls and the painted bullfighting scenes gesture toward the old country, but also the appetizers are called tapas, and there are Spanish classics like patatas bravas listed on the menu.

Perhaps the key lies in the name: Fonda means “restaurant” in Spanish, but in Italian it’s a form of the verb “to melt.” Isabela’s is a melting pot if it’s anything, the kind of restaurant where queso fundido is on the menu alongside fried ravioli and where you’ll find spaghetti served with cilantro and chicken. It’s not California cuisine, but it’s very Californian in its mix-and-match, if-it-tastes-good-go-for-it air.

The ultimate giveaway that Isabela’s is not your basic Mexican restaurant is the lack of a basket of chips on the table, or maybe that just means Isabela’s has ambitions to be more than your average enchilada joint. Despite the menu’s freewheeling offerings, it also includes a number of dishes that stick closer to Mexican tradition than one might expect, including several with nopales (tender strips of cactus).

The restaurant makes a pretty good—though not overly strong—blended margarita, too. Served in a tall glass, it emptied itself remarkably quickly at our table. Once my husband had drained it dry, our waiter quickly reappeared to ask if he’d like another, peppering the query liberally with slightly obsequious uses of “Sir.” (He also called me “Miss” at least twice every time he spoke to me throughout the meal, which was a bit odd; not only do I wear a wedding ring, but also, as of this writing, I am eight months and very visibly pregnant.)

My husband was glad to have taken him up on the offer of a second drink, because our appetizers took a while. It was long enough, in fact, that the waiter came to apologize, though we hadn’t complained. He offered to comp the second margarita—a nice gesture. The appetizers turned out to be worth the wait. Be warned, though: Portions are huge, and either of ours would have made a perfectly reasonable entree on its own. In fact, I would have been happy to make a meal of appetizers, as there were a lot of tempting options, but I felt duty-bound to sample the entrees.

The first to arrive of the starters was a plate of four tostaditas, fried mini-tortillas heaped with toppings. You can choose carnitas, chicken or the papas y rajas (tender chunks of potatoes stewed in a tomato base with strips of chiles), or you can mix and match. We got two with carnitas and two with the papas y rajas. Aside from the basic topping, they also included two kinds of spicy salsa, sour cream, crumbled queso fresco and finely shredded red cabbage, making them a definite eat-with-a-fork proposition. I slightly preferred the meaty, rich carnitas to the papas y rajas, in which I found a lot more papas than rajas, but I also liked the presence of plenty of meatless options on Isabela’s menu.

Our other appetizer, mussels with chorizo, took off on a Spanish classic but used fresh, hot, Mexican-style chorizo rather than the dry, Spanish type. The super-plump mussels swam in a rich orange broth, accompanied by dramatically big flour tortillas fried to a golden, shattering crisp.

Our entrees followed quickly on the heels of the appetizers—so quickly that there was hardly room on the table for all the oversized plates. I had chiles rellenos with nopales over black beans, with a surprising but tasty pool of a tender, lush, substance that was somewhere between spoon bread and ultra-creamy, cheese-imbued polenta. In general, portions at Isabela’s are a generous bargain, and this dish filled an extra-wide deep-rimmed plate. The chiles were a little hard to find amid everything that was going on, but the fresh dark-green poblanos were very good. I also liked the strips of nopales, though truth be told, nopales have a retiring flavor and add little more than a gently tangy greenness to most dishes. This dish, in particular, might have benefited from more restraint in its composition and portion size, to allow the different flavors and elements to shine more. (I also was a little disappointed to get flour tortillas rather than the corn I had requested.)

My husband’s torta rustica had intrigued me when he ordered it. I wasn’t sure if the Mexican or the Italian meaning of torta would prevail. It turned out to be the former, a big sandwich on a white roll, but with a lot of Italian flavor from roasted vegetables and cheese. The accompanying fries, however, were dull and disappointing.

It’s a tall order to mix elements of such diverse cuisines. Even if I’m not quite sure what to make of all of Isabela’s innovations, I like the generous and openhearted spirit in which they’ve been undertaken.