Ann Arbor's stylish new Isalita has opened on East Liberty, featuring a flavor-packed menu of snacks, small plates, tacos and other delicious bites inspired mainly by popular Mexican street foods.
The drinks menu by bartender Jeff Westerman is diverse and tempting, featuring Isalita's own cocktail creations, Mexican and craft beers, wines, margaritas, mojitos, Mexican sodas and aquas frescas, and an extensive list of mezcals and tequilas.
Isalita is the creation of Mani Osteria owner Adam Baru, aided by talented chef Brendan McCall. A few days after opening late last week, it is clear already that this lively, casual spot is a worthy sibling for the popular Mani, right next door.
Every dish I tasted on an early first visit this week was bursting with fresh, bright, complex flavors.
Even the simple bowl of pico de gallo -- diced bright red tomatoes, fresh jalapeño, white onion and bold cilantro -- surprised us with its concentrated summery flavor. Order it alongside the aromatic truffled guacamole, simply made with jalapeño, cilantro and a splash of truffle-infused huitlacoche vinaigrette. Both the pico and guacamole come with baskets of warm, crisp, house-made tortilla chips.
Don't expect traditional dinners with beans and rice; there aren't any.
Instead, Isalita offers a menu of mostly small, eye-catching bites assembled individually with the attention to detail usually reserved for finer-dining appetizers. The flautas are made with small taco-sized tortillas rolled around rich, spicy, duck confit, set atop an avocado sauce and crowned with shredded lettuce and extra-fine radish matchsticks. The sopes are served three on a plate, each cup-shaped cornbread shell filled with slightly sweet ground-beef picadillo and garnished with crumbled queso blanco cheese and a topknot of green onion.
The menu offers seven taco trios on small street-size corn tortillas, two with vegetarian fillings. There are more vegetarian options among the soups, salads and nachos.
Don't miss the shredded-pork carnitas tacos spiked with a bright, tart, salsa verde, julienned pickled onions and fresh cilantro. The tinga (chicken) poblano variety is delicious, too, with shredded chicken in a rich, red chipotle sauce.
Another standout was the hamachi ceviche, with slices of the raw fish, also called yellowtail, lining the bottom of a small rectangular white dish, topped with a fresh salsa made of chopped mango, cilantro, red onion and a hint of habanero, along with orange segments and a small scoop of cooling lime granita.
The only miss was our skirt-steak nachos, which were left in the oven too long.
The restaurant's interior -- designed by Ron Rea of Ron & Roman architects in Birmingham -- is fun and distinctive, dominated by an oversized portrait of three older Mexican men painted on the room's main brick wall. It was taken from a photo Baru saw of three men sitting on a bench in San Miguel Allende, the town where he and his wife, Lucia, were married.
"It reminds me very much of my father-in-law and his friends," Adam Baru said. "I love the look on their faces, where they're just sort of lording over the dining room."
Baru said his wife made him promise that the next restaurant he opened would serve Mexican food. He has been visiting Mexico regularly for 12 years, he says, and, "It has become very much a part of my life." Baru had opened a Mexican restaurant of a similar style in Philadelphia while working for chef Jose Garces -- a Food Network Iron Chef.
Baru and McCall went to Mexico City to research food for the menu. Some of Isalita's dishes are taken from those they found; others are interpretations. The gorditas are miniaturized versions of the kind served in Lucia Baru's hometown.
The restaurant's name was inspired by the Barus' daughter's name, Isabel, whose nickname in Mexico is Isa. Baru added "ita" at the end, a term of endearment, and put an L in the middle.
The menu is on the restaurant's Facebook page. Guests in wheelchairs should use Mani's entrance on Division Street, to avoid several steps. (341A E. Liberty; 734- 213-7400 and www.isalita.com)
Contact Sylvia Rector: 313-222-5026 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SylviaRector