leave your inhibitions at the door
I finally got in.
In late December there was an outbreak of restaurants that opened up in Ann Arbor that included three fine dining options – Kuroshio, Vellum, and Isalita. I was most excited about Isalita and, apparently, so was all of Southeast Michigan. I had tried on three occasions to get in, but the waits were (and still are) 2 – 2.5 hours long. A couple Saturdays ago, Boom Boom left for a girls’ trip to Mexico, leaving us in lovely (pronounced “freezing”) Ann Arbor. I decided that if she was going to get some awesome Mexican food, goshdurnit so would I. To beat the crowds the Pieholes and I set out to get there as soon as they opened, but arrived twenty minutes too late. By that time the wait for a table was already 45 minutes. For those of you in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, etc. that are scoffing at this – remember, this is a sleepy college town. Waits like this aren’t the norm.
The Mexican food scene in Michigan is pretty dismal. In Detroit, there’s Mexican Town, a tourist trap where I had one of the worst Mexican meals ever. Here in Ann Arbor, it’s even worse. There are a couple places that are somewhat authentic, meaning they are owned and run by Mexicans, but they aren’t that good. Others are as authentic as Chi-Chi’s. There’s one in particular that’s a complete abomination because it’s soooo honky it makes my head hurt. Yet, it’s treasured here simply because it’s been around for a long, long time. Yes, there’s a downside to loyalty towards local-owned businesses.
Thankfully we now have Isalita, which is owned and managed by the same folks as its neighbor, Mani Osteria. Mani’s been around for a little over a year, but has already piled up some huge accolades. Travel + Leisure listed it as one of the 20 best Italian restaurants in America and Food & Wine recently named it one of the Best Pizza Places in the US . Over the past few months, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay have eaten there and raved about it. More importantly, I’VE been there at least a dozen times, and it really is that fantastic. One of these days, I’ll actually write about it.
But on to Isalita…
It’s lively, both in terms of bustle and bright splashes of color. The only things that hint at a Mexican theme are a large mural on one wall and the baskets used for light fixtures. There are no Mexican blankets, piñatas, or traveling mariachi players anywhere in sight. Very tasteful.
I’ve heard some complain that the noise level is way too high, but I’ve heard that about a lot of restaurants around here. When did this town get so old and crotchety?
My suggestion is to think of it this way – go there for the food, that conversation you wanted to have about your crappy day or whose turn it is to clean out the lint trap is not that important. In fact, it’s disrespectful of the awesome food there.
One of the things that I love so much about Vellum is the innovation and excitement they are bringing to familiar menu items. In that review, I said I wanted food that I either can’t make or don’t have the patience to make at home. Isalita’s doing similar with Mexican street food. Some of the names are familiar – guacamole, queso fundido, ceviche – but I’m pretty sure you haven’t had anything like their versions. The food is served small-plates style, so it’s easy to sample a lot of the offerings. Which we did…
Black truffle guacamole with jalapeno, cilantro, huitlacoche vinaigrette
Hamachi ceviche with orange habanero sauce, citrus segments, lime granita. In a first – an argument ensued between me and the Pieholes as to who’d get the last bite – I lost.
Sweet corn soup with huitlacoche, queso, zucchini
Queso Fundido with house-made chorizo
Gorditas with chipotle chicken, cheese, avocado espuma
Tacos al Pastor – guajillo glazed pork belly, pickled pineapple
Lengua tacos – tongue, pickled onions, avocado, cilantro
Papas y Rajas – spicy potato, squash, poblano cream, cilantro
Here’s their current menu.
I was with the kids that night and was so enthralled by their conversation that I didn’t have – or need – anything with alcohol. Hahahahahaha…. OK, seriously, I had one of their margaritas. There are four kinds – three of them were just variations of the classic recipe which used different quality ingredients (i.e. Grand Marnier vs. triple sec, reposado vs silver tequila, etc.) The fourth was a frozen blood orange version. I was pleasantly surprised there weren’t more variations of margaritas. Although I liked how the food had twists to them, I still prefer my margaritas traditional – no frozen cherry-pomegranate-ginger versions, please. The cocktail list was certainly interesting, especially the La Romita – Fighting Cock bourbon, pineapple ginger shrub, habanero, lime. Will definitely hit that later. The beer list was serviceable, nothing terribly exciting. Wine isn’t the best to have with Mexican food, but they do have a dozen or so available. There is a red from Uruguay on the menu which I may try later only because I’ve never had one from there.
I would’ve honestly been happy with just about anything, given the serious lack of quality Mexican food around here. When I read the articles prior to Isalita’s opening, I was surprised to learn that owner Adam Baru had worked with Danny Meyer, Iron Chef Morimoto, and Next Iron Chef-winner Jose Garces. Those experiences (along with his being married to someone from Mexico) started to give me some hope that it would be just a little better than good. Then when I heard all the buzz and experienced all the long wait times, my expectations started increasing to perhaps unreasonable levels.
The good news is that Isalita surpassed those expectations. We had run into some neighbors who were sitting at the bar and they insisted I try their guacamole. From that first bite, I knew this was going to be a special meal. The hamachi was absolutely fantastic, especially with the lime granita providing an icy counterpoint. The gorditas, soup, and queso fundido were not on my list to order – the kids wanted them – but they were great. I’d definitely order the soup and queso again in a heartbeat. I love just about anything with pork belly in it, and the carnitas did not disappoint. But the big surprise was that I liked the – shocker! – vegetarian papas y rajas a little more.
At first glance, the prices looked a little high – each of the above were in the $9-12 range – and the portions weren’t huge. But, miraculously, the total for the four of us was around $100. Even though they’re kids, they have huge appetites, so four adults will probably be about the same – not including booze, of course. So overall, that’s actually a pretty fair price. When you consider how good the food was, it starts to look like a bargain.
You should definitely go there – just not when I plan on going. But if you do, let me cut in line and I’ll buy you some tequila.
341A Liberty, Ann Arbor
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