The Food and Wine Hedonist

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Ann Arbor Eats – Isalita

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…


The Space

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.

isalita space

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.

Ann Arbor

The Food

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

isalita guac

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.

isalita cev 3

Sweet corn soup with huitlacoche, queso, zucchini

isalita soup

Queso Fundido with house-made chorizo

isalita queso

Gorditas with chipotle chicken, cheese, avocado espuma

isalita gordita

Tacos al Pastor – guajillo glazed pork belly, pickled pineapple

isalita pork belly tacos

Lengua tacos – tongue, pickled onions, avocado, cilantro

isalita lengua tacos

Papas y Rajas – spicy potato, squash, poblano cream, cilantro

isalita papas y rajas

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.


The Verdict

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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About thefoodandwinehedonist

I don't know everything about the world of food and wine, but I'm not going to let a small detail like that stop me from blogging about it.

28 comments on “Ann Arbor Eats – Isalita

  1. applesandclovers
    March 6, 2013

    I just went here last weekend. Unfortunately, the downstairs seating was too dark for flashless photography, but I’m definitely planning to go back, perhaps during Happy Hour. The ceviche was so good!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 7, 2013

      Is your apprehension with the quality of the picture? (Or do you not want to call attn to you taking a pic?)

      • applesandclovers
        March 7, 2013

        I don’t often carry my hot shoe flash to restaurants, because it’s really big and has gotten me in trouble before. =( As a result, I need to sit near a good light source or dine early enough to have sun; my camera’s not very good with high ISOs.

        • thefoodandwinehedonist
          March 7, 2013

          Wow, u have a hot shoe!! I usually use iPhone but recently picked up a dslr, so low light is easier. Stay tuned, I have a funny post coming up on taking pix of food!

  2. thewineraconteur
    March 6, 2013

    I am looking forward to trying some new restaurants, and Ann Arbor is very close. I had read about the two that you mentioned, I was just waiting for the dust to settle, as I never feel that I have to be Mr. First Nighter. Keep us the great reviews.

  3. PocketfulofSugarKaitie
    March 6, 2013

    Raving friends told me similar things about this restaurant. Everything looks so good! Looks like I’ll be making a trip to AA. Those margaritas and hamachi ceviche sound worth it!

  4. Max D.
    March 6, 2013

    I’ll try my luck now that it’s UM’s spring break. Went to Zola yesterday and Lena today. I’ll give you a call if you might want to go again Thursday or Friday (wait, are they open for lunch?)

  5. the drunken cyclist
    March 6, 2013

    So no reservations? Hmmm maybe the buzz while subside by the time I get out there.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 7, 2013

      I doubt it. Mani still has long waits. But we can leave our names and get a drink elsewhere or make our way thru their Tequila list…

  6. Megan @ MegGoesNomNom
    March 6, 2013

    Nice! Hamachi Ceviche was a favorite of mine too.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 7, 2013

      I want to try the other, but they may have to run out of Hamachi for me NOT to order this one

  7. Jim M.
    March 6, 2013

    Ha. I was somewhat less enamored of the food. But this is funny. <>

  8. I’ve managed to get a table or sit at the bar about 5 times since they opened. I think I’ve worked my way through most of the menu, and everything has ranged from good to great. Walk in early, put your number down, go grab a drink somewhere, and they’ll call you when your table is ready. That’s been my MO, aside from scoring a seat at the bar and just getting food there.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 7, 2013

      Yeah, those are good ideas. The times I’ve had long waits were with kids and they couldn’t wait. And that meant I couldn’t eat at the bar because I’m SURE someone would’ve called child protective services on me for having them belly up to it. THanks for stoppign by!

  9. Chrissy O'Neill
    March 27, 2013

    great review! i have to say i’m biased because i work here now, instead of mani! glad you enjoyed the food

  10. ksbeth
    April 11, 2013

    loved the review, love the restaurant. looking forward to reading more. like you, i seek authenticity and it can be a challenge to find at times – thanks for reading and following my blog as well ) beth

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  12. wildbluewonder
    July 16, 2013

    Oh wow, I didn’t even know this place existed. Thank you for enlightening me!!!

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This entry was posted on March 6, 2013 by in Ann Arbor, Dining, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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