Nestled at the corner of East Liberty and South Division in the same building as sister restaurant Mani Osteria & Bar, Isalita is one of Ann Arbor’s newest (and most anticipated) new restaurants. A creation of Mani owner Adam Baru and local chef Brendan McCall, Isalita has been consistently drawing crowds of Mexican food enthusiasts from all over Southeast Michigan since it opened in the last week of December.
Although Isalita’s exterior quietly blends into the surroundings in a way that makes you almost miss the entrance, once you walk through the door, the interior transports you to somewhere else. The back wall and bar area are painted a vibrant lime green, there’s a large rustic mural on the other wall and the whole room is accented by repurposed wooden produce basket lamps and Mexico-infused décor. In this way, Isalita brings the flair of south of the border to the north – an experience they call “100% Puro Mexico.”
Inspired by Mexican street food, their menu is accented by more upscale interpretations of grab and go favorites like tacos, nachos, ceviches, sopes and guacamole. The bar is fully stocked with a wide variety of liquors, wine, Mexican beer and even aguas frescas like hibiscus tea (or Jamaica). They also serve a pretty tasty michelada, for those of you who are fans of this desert thirst-quencher made from clamato, tecate and lime (although it did feel a bit odd drinking one in the winter in Michigan rather than the hot summer).
If tequila is your fancy, they have a wide variety of agave spirits to tantalize you including Don Julio and a few types of mescal. The blood orange frozen margaritas are a must, and they even offer tequila flights for the adventurous agave aficionado. But whether we are talking food or drink, everything I’ve tasted at Isalita has been quite good.
One of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes is coctél de camarón (shrimp cocktail), where the restaurant often supplies you with the shrimp and an array of sauces for you to create your own concoction – kind of like a build your own Bloody Mary bar for raw seafood. Although the version at Isalita diverges from that Mexican standard, I was struck by its delectable balance of avocado, chile, lime, salt and lightly brined shrimp.
There were a few other standouts for me as well, including the crispy duck taquitos, the earthy forest mushroom tacos and the tangy fish tacos with pickled red cabbage. For dessert, you can choose between traditional tres leches cake, helado (ice cream) or a sweet and savory sundae made with housemade caramel and salted pumpkin seeds over strawberry ice cream.
The fact that I loved the food at Isalita so much was an especially pleasant surprise for me as someone who used to live in California and who owns a homegrown, locally-made salsa business. However, some may fault Isalita for their high prices and small portions, and it is true that the cost tends to stack up if you plan on eating a lot as well as drinking. To their credit, though, they do explain their emphasis on street food and small plates up front, so my advice is to approach it more like you would a tapas bar. Besides, the food is incredibly delicious and is worth the occasional splurge. Plus, it’s a really great place to grab a drink during happy hour or a quick bite in the early evening.
With a dusting of fresh cilantro sprouts and radish slaw, the food at Isalita shines with the lustre of top-quality, locally-sourced ingredients infused with the spirit of Mexico.