Welcome to Nayarit
Mexico is so large and diverse that “Mexican food” doesn’t actually say much. When you see the word “mariscos” attached to a Mexican restaurant, you can expect a focus on seafood; but with thousands of miles of Mexican coastline, even mariscos leaves quite a few unanswered questions. Las Islitas, for its part, has staked claim to the cuisine of the central Pacific state of Nayarit.
Every aspect of this South Valley eatery stays loyal to its Nayarit roots. The name Las Islitas means “little islands,” a shout-out to a chain of islands off the Nayarit coast. Bottles of hot sauce on the tables contain Salsa Huichol; its label boasts, “seasoned with the best spices and hot peppers from the Nyar mountains.” Peppers are some of the few land-based elements of Nayarit identity to be found at Las Islitas, where seafood is not only king, it’s the only thing on the menu.
The north wall of the restaurant is painted with a marlin mural and the words “bienvenidos a su vitamina”—“welcome to your vitamin,” a reference to the health benefits of mariscos. In addition to the ocean and Nayarit-related art, the decor includes three televisions and a free jukebox. On our second visit, a guy with a guitar strapped to his back, snakeskin boots, a big belt buckle and a bigger cowboy hat wandered through the front door. He strummed a few chords, and after a brief, surreal moment, he was given his walking papers by our unimpressed waitress.
“They even have their eyes, OK?” she warned, in Spanish, when I ordered a plate of camarones a la cucaracha —“cockroach shrimp.”
While most Mexican restaurants start you off with chips and salsa, the servers at Las Islitas deliver seviche, as well as little bowls of spicy green jalapeño sauce. Whole tostadas and packaged saltines are presented in lieu of chips.
Our waitress was attentive and helpful, even if English wasn’t her strong suit.
“They even have their eyes, OK?” she warned, in Spanish, when I ordered a plate of camarones a la cucaracha—“cockroach shrimp.” Turns out they resembled cockroaches no more than any other spindly, exoskelton-clad crustacean. They were shrimp, they were fresh and they were good, arriving whole and unpeeled in a massive pile and drenched in a tangy red chile and tomato salsa reminiscent of barbecue sauce. Whole, fried fish was another bull’s-eye; I could almost feel the sand between my toes.
Las Islitas' brothy soups were my favorite. The fish soup had large chunks of marlin and calabacitas squash, while the siete mares (seven seas) soup put on a spectacular show of mariscos and aromatic herbs.
Other than fish-paste-filled empanadas—too greasy and doughy to appreciate the oceanic morsels inside—all of the food we ate at Las Islitas was not only good, but different. I felt like I was eating the food of a particular region, not a calculated attempt to sell me a mainstreamed version of Mexican food. Even the guacamole was different, more chunky than smooth. The food was simple, clearly having evolved in a place where the raw ingredients were so good and so fresh, no culinary tap-dancing was necessary.
Alas, the limited real estate in my panza made it impossible for me to sample more of the seafood dishes on the two-page menu. But I’ll be back for more. The folks at Las Islitas clearly know how to get hold of good fish. And they know how to cook it.
• Siete mares soup
• Fried, whole fish
• Camarones a la cucaracha
Las Islitas, 619 Old Coors SW, 836-4998. Hours: 10 am-8 pm every day. Price range: $2.50 (tostadas with seviche and green salsa appetizer) to $45 (two-person dinner platter); most entrées are $8 to $12. Ambiance: Salvador Dalí dances with mermaids in a low-key fashion. No booze. Credit cards accepted.