Tremendous day

Las Islitas

7240 24th St.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 421-6271

“Tremendous” is a bit of an underused word, and on leaving Las Islitas—a mariscos restaurant down in south Sacramento—I was rather charmed to see that the receipt bore the cheery line, “Have a tremendous day!” My day was not particularly tremendous, but it was made considerably more so by the manifold seafood delights of Las Islitas. Their food is Nayarit-style (Nayarit, I had to look in my atlas to find out, is a small state on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast), which seems to mean abundant fresh fish and shellfish.

The menu reflects this with seafood stews, oysters, several ceviches and shrimp and fish plates (the latter served with rice and beans). While you’re deciding, the server brings out not chips and salsa, but a basket of big crunchy tostadas, saltines (in those familiar little packets, and I regret to say that they are pretty stale) and a small bowl of the fish ceviche—a tart, appetizing start to dinner. The freebie ceviche is obviously pre-made, and its texture suffers a little for it, in that the little chunks of fish were starting to go mushy around the edges, but the flavors of lime, chili, tomato, onion and fresh seafood were true and very good.

While you wait for more food, there’s not all that much to look at. The building is a little brick cottage-style thing with bars on the door, and it’s pretty dark inside. The highlights of the décor are the colorful wall murals of Mexican coastal scenes; the lowlights, which may be gone by now, were large amounts of leftover Cinco de Mayo banners, flags and so on. There’s a faux palapa roof in the back covering the window to the kitchen and a big, sprawling dining room that was largely empty on our visit. I get the feeling it can fill up, though, and that the crowd can tend toward being rowdy: a sign proclaimed, in Spanish and English, that alcohol was only served if you ordered food, and the limit is three drinks per customer.

The drinks are mostly a fine sampling of Mexican beer, plus soft drinks and a few aguas frescas (my husband ordered a jamaica, and it was fine but not special). But I had a feeling that one might be able to get the beer gussied up a bit, and asked if they could make me a michelada: typically a mix of beer, tomato juice, hot sauce and lime. They could, and man, was it good—and perfect with the food. It came in the biggest glass mug I have ever seen, rimmed with coarse chili salt—the drink was a tomato-sunset color, refreshing, spicy and fantastic on what was a disgustingly hot day.

The food was also just right in the heat. I got a small cocktel with shrimp and octopus—the latter a little strongly flavored, but nice in texture, cut thinly crosswise so as not to be too rubbery. The shrimp were sweet and fresh tasting, and the saline, thin broth was enlivened by the crunch of cucumbers and onions, plus fresh tomatoes. A shrimp ceviche tostada—an insane bargain—was big, crunchy round topped with super-fresh cold, raw shrimp, just beginning to pinken, thanks to the lime juice and the same vegetables. It looked innocuous enough, but closer inspection (and a bite) revealed a lot of green-chile heat—all the better to wash down with that michelada. It was filling and fresh enough to serve as dinner on its own, though I nibbled at my companions’ food as well.

My husband opted for the shrimp cucarachas—an unpromising and unexplained name, but naturally, there was not a cockroach in sight. I understand it’s a traditional Nayarit dish, made with a creamy, slightly smoky-tasting tomato-based sauce that’s tangy, peppery and just a little sweet all at once. Salsa Huichol, a hot sauce particular to the region, gives it a lot of flavor. Here again, the shrimp were plump, firm and excellent. It came with beans and rice, a wedge of lettuce and cucumbers.

A small order of breaded fried fish for our daughter was unusual but good: very thin fish slices were golden brown with a fine, crunchy crumb crust sprinkled with herbs, yet still somehow juicy and fairly tender inside. The big mound of refried beans had a clean beany flavor—a bit salty, but not very runny with lard, as you see at a lot of places. The rice was, well, pretty much rice, though it was yellow rather than fake orange in color.

All of this, a feast we couldn’t finish, was under $10 per person—as I say, an insane bargain and exactly what you would want on a hot summer night. The restaurant’s business card says they have two other locations, one on Northgate Boulevard (which I hear has a patio) and one in North Highlands. I haven’t been to either, but this one was good enough that I’ll return either to it or to its counterparts.