La vida aquatic

Las Islitas

3618 A St.
North Highlands, CA 95660

(916) 331-4302

Complimentary ceviche. Accompanied by a bowl of lime wedges and at least a half-dozen crispy corn tortillas. Positive opinion formed. Review concluded. Las Islitas in North Highlands is authoritative. There’s also a new location near Florin Road on 24th Street. Only a higher power or random chance draws diners to the A Street Las Islitas. Not seeing it while plodding along Watt Avenue is more likely than glimpsing it tucked behind an Adalberto’s Mexican Food. But there is some kismet here. Some karma at work. Some irresistible compulsion that screams “Check it out!” And upon opening the front door, I’m greeted by Ana, one of the co-owners. It’s over at hello, as the expression goes. Brightly effervescent, Ana asks if spicy is OK. Si como no. In that case, she recommends the shrimp (camarones) a la cora. Only fools question advice from experts.

While working to clear the large oval dish of the ceviche—small fish pieces dotted with red onions, green peppers and tomato tarted up with lime—the interior gets a quick perusal. The cutting and sizing of the ceviche pieces seems quite uniform, suggesting it might be purchased rather than made in house. Nonetheless, it’s an attention-getting, palate-pleasing freebie.

In keeping with the menu’s principally oceanic offerings, Las Islitas sports a subdued beach motif with a few wall-clinging starfish, some netting and low, barrel-shaped wicker chairs that appear ideal for lounging on a luminous red-tile balcony somewhere south of Puerto Vallarta overlooking the azure Pacific Ocean. Scrawled on the front window below Las Islitas is the phrase “de Nayarit.” Nayarit is a state on the western coast of Mexico, of which Las Islitas is a coastal town that, one must infer from the menu, goes for seafood in a major way.

The shrimp a la cora is presumably either a method used by the original inhabitants of Nayarit—the Cora who appeared around 400 A.D.—or a type of chili mentioned in Nayarit cooking. Or both. Likely both, since the menu touts use of the “best spices and hot peppers from the Nayarit Mountains.” Whatever cora is at play, the result is plenty of grilled, red-dusted, exoskeleton-still-attached shrimp sprinkled with chili that set off with tomato and cucumber slices and red onion half-moon slivers. It is everything Ana promised: Spicy, messy and memorable. Shrimp stuffed with cheddar and wrapped in smoky bacon is another Nayarit staple. It’s heavier and less fiery than the cora and comes with celery-flecked rice and prefab ranch dressing on the crisp iceberg salad.

For sheer refreshment on a hot day, it’s hard to beat cazuelitas, of which the $14.95 especiale is the most varied with chunks of pulpo (octopus), shrimp, oysters and abalone. It’s listed on the menu with the various tostadas, shrimp among them, of course, but the waitress says cazuelitas is not a tostada. She can’t explain what it is—few patrons here order in English, which is always a good sign. She assures that it’s good, however. It is a cold seafood stew punctuated with tomato, cucumber, red onion, avocado slices and a lime sauce so intense that bits of tostada are needed to leaven its potentially overpowering impact. It’s a clean and simple dish defined by the combination of flavors rather than the individual ingredients. It’s a joyful discovery that appears to be complemented, as many of the meals are at other tables, with michelada in foot-tall mugs with chili-peppered rims. The Clamato, beer, lime juice combo seems designed with seafood in mind. Overall, an entrancing introduction to the seafood pleasures of Nayarit.