Perhaps the success of one restaurant in the Ann Arbor area wasn't enough, or maybe Mani was just missing a sassy Latina sister. Whatever the reason, Adam Baru and Chef Brendan McCall have brought their knack for rustic elegance to Mexican cuisine. The extra space next to Mani has been transformed into Isalita (EE-sah-lee-ta), a modernized Mexican cantina.
The dream for the restaurant spun from their mutual love for Mexican food. With this passion, which has been enhanced by their exploration of the country itself, and inspired by the culture and the cooking of Adam’s wife and family, it was really only a matter of time before Ann Arbor welcomed this little cantina to join its family.
Isalita is located next door to the Mani on William St., an unassuming façade with its name strung together over the door in copper-colored letters. Immediately after walking up the flight of stairs to the main dining area, your eyes are captured by an enormous mural, painted on the rough brick wall of three older men. The mural is based on a French photograph dubbed by Adam as “The Three Amigos.” Adam explained that they were really trying to balance the feeling of an authentic Mexican cantina with a modernized restaurant. “I don’t want cactuses, sombreros, and bright colors.” He gestured to the mural, “three guys on a park bench. That’s Mexico.” The result of this ambition is a room of dark wooden tables, soft lightening creating a thatched roof-effect on the ceiling, a few walls brazenly painted in pink, green, and orange, and a pounded copper bar with multi-colored drinks balanced on its uneven surface. There is even a downstairs with a larger “fiesta room” and one copper-topped table set up as though it were brought straight from someone’s house, surrounded by black and white pictures of Adam’s wife and family. To me, this feeling of an upscale cantina is almost perfect. I thought a couple of the bright walls, especially the lime green, were a little cliché and would have preferred a softer shade with a few less decorative knickknacks. But most of the restaurant, true to the original vision, is rustically elegant, a combination I find rather enchanting.
The menu at Isalita, put together by a University of Michigan graduate, is organized in a laid back “tapas-style,” meaning guests are encouraged to choose several small plates from different sections of the menu instead of large entrees. Among classics starters like guacamole, and nachos, Isalita offers ceviche, savory gorditas, and an array of authentic Mexican tacos.
I was never a big Mexican food fan, until I actually went to Mexico. It was here I realized that it wasn’t the real food that I didn’t like, but rather the Americanized version. Thankfully, Isalita is not the typical Mexican restaurant you find here in the States, mostly because it actually serves real Mexican food.
Accompanying each dish was the always articulate Chef Brendan with a list of ingredients and a fascinating story. The truffle guacamole has been a favorite among the adventurous Ann Arborites so far. A simple mash of fresh avocados, onions, lime juice, and salt is topped with a rather unpleasant looking mixture of calabasa flowers, roasted poblano peppers (rajas), and huitlacoche, an ingredient familiar to me through episodes of Chopped. I actually had to work to refrain from squealing at finally being able to taste it. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn, Brendan explained. In Mexico it’s a delicacy, and although it doesn’t look any more appealing than the work “fungus” sounds, the mixture added a unique flavor that was salty, savory, and surprisingly acidic. I found it to be a little reminiscent of tomatoes.
I tried the vegetarian nachos, which were structurally superior to any nacho I’ve ever had, but my favorite tapa was the elote, Mexican corn on the cob. In Mexico, it’s usually found in pop-up stands, sold by street peddlers out of large metal steamers. At Isalita, the corn is steamed, grilled, and topped with a chipotle mayo, queso fresco, and a dusting of chili pequin and lime. It’s smoky, spicy, sweet, and creamy. This is a dish that is truly authentic, but because of the quality of ingredients and whimsical presentation, it does not seem out of place at the indoor cantina.
American tacos are large floury wraps, or even further from the truth, fried folded shells. At Isalita, the tacos shells are corn based, hand-made every morning, and no bigger than the palm of your hand. The kinds of tacos available range from peppers and potatoes, “papas y rajas,” to the classic pork carnitas. My favorites of the evening were presented to me almost as a dare. Brendan asked Mary and I if we were adventurous before bringing out the lengua tacos, made with beef tongue. Let me assure you, beef tongue sounds much stranger than it tastes. Tender, rich, and with its uniquely beef flavor, the lengua tacos transported me back to La Ciudad, standing outside of a food cart trying to balance the taco with one hand while squeezing a lime over the dish with the other. These tacos were the most simplistic of the ones I had, but real tacos need nothing more than a good shell, good meat, and a little lime. Simple, fresh, and evocative, the lengua tacos were exactly what I look for in Mexican food.
Final Recommendation: Isalita is one of first places I have been to in the United States that serves real Mexican food. If you come here looking for rice, beans, and hard taco shells, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Isalita is a place that’s about eating together, laughing, talking, and sprinkling lime on everything. Don’t dress up, don’t come alone, and don’t ignore your waiters, who know a lot about the food. The food here isn't particularly mind-blowing in innovation or breath-taking in elegance, but it is genuine. The way I see it, Mani is the older sister, conscious, graceful, and polished. Isalita is the little rebel, still holding her own level of elegance but refusing to be lifted from her roots. She knows who she is.
If you would like more information about Isalita, here is some basic contact information:
341A E. Liberty St. Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Hours: Tue - Thu: 4:00 pm - 10:00 pm
Fri - Sat: 4:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Sun: 4:00 pm - 9:00 pm