The feeling inside La Isla, on Bridge just west of the river, is laid-back and celebratory. Western fantasy, Dances With Wolves-style paintings of animals and the men who wrangle them hang on the walls, along with Old West photos and framed news clippings. There are plants (real and fake), suspended paper bells that look leftover from Chinese New Year, and some painted globe chandeliers that might have come from a midcentury diner. An exterior roof façade crowns the kitchen, making it seem like you’re outside while the kitchen is in a little cabana on the beach.
My waitress didn’t appear to speak English. So in broken Spanish, I ordered a green chile enchilada, a Veracruz-style fried fish and a Tecate.
The beer came with a glass so well-chilled my lips almost stuck to it. It was an ideal foil for the warm chips and salsa she set down before me—a purée with a nip of jalapeño. Three hot sauces on the table lay in wait to adjust the heat.
La Isla bills itself as a mariscos restaurant, and it does indeed serve some good seafood. But the green chile enchilada was the highlight of my time there. It was served flat, filled and topped with shredded chicken and a plate-licking-good green chile sauce. The rice on the side was nicely cooked, the beans were soft with just enough resistance, and a side salad was more than just a token garnish.
The Veracruz-style fried fish arrived whole and crispy, with slices carved into its side to absorb more of the tomato-based sauce that drenched it. The sauce tasted like canned marinara generously augmented with fresh onion, bell pepper and celery. Even if it was originally Ragu, no points were deducted; the sauce mixed well with the light, juicy, crispy tilapia flesh. I ate it all and sucked on the bones.
Indeed, it was huge, with carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, celery and seafood in every bite of savory tomato broth. As I worked through my bowl of soup, a mariachi band made the rounds, serenading the tables.
On my next visit, the waitress greeted me with a “Hey, you’re back!” I felt oddly deflated to learn she spoke English, after swelling with pride at my ability to order in Spanish. “You speak English?” I said. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“A lot of customers who come here want to practice their Spanish.” I contemplated taking offense at the suggestion that my Spanish needed practice. But it did, so I didn’t.
After ordering bowl of siete islas, a “seven islands” seafood soup, I looked down at the menu again, but the waitress cut me off. “It’s really big,” she said of my already-placed order.
Indeed, it was huge, with carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, celery and seafood—fish, shrimp, octopus, mussels, oysters, clams and fake crab—in every bite of savory tomato broth. As I worked through my bowl of soup, a mariachi band made the rounds, serenading the tables.
Owing to the huge volume of soup I put away with no other dishes to show for my visit, I had to come back again for some closure. This time, there was fried fish in a garlic-and-onion sauce, topped with heavenly fried bits of more garlic and onions. A pork in red chile sauce was OK, but no fireworks—like a cut-up pork chop cooked briefly in red chile. The meat just didn't taste like it had enough time to absorb the flavors of the sauce. As I finished my meal a different waitress approached me and spoke to me so fast in Spanish I was lost. “No entiendo,” I said.
“No hablas español?” she asked.
“No mucho,” I said, vaguely comforted by the fact that I was back in a restaurant where English is a second language. With a frosty beer glass in hand, mariachi echoing across the restaurant, and a pile of fish bones on my plate, I was glad to be on a mini road trip to Mexico by way of the South Valley.