Las Islitas gives a taste of Nayarit's seafood specialties
In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
All photos by Mark Antonation.
The last time I was in the space currently occupied by Mariscos Las Islitas, it was an El Salvadoran joint called El Cuscatleco. I was sorry to see it close, but only because there just aren't enough places to get pupusas in Denver. Still, El Cuscatleco was an odd restaurant -- trying hard to be a nightclub but lacking any real nightlife vibe -- and my one meal there was painfully awkward and uncomfortable. Food didn't seem to be on anyone's mind: The all-female waitstaff was primarily occupied with drinking tequila shots and dancing in front of the DJ booth with the male customers. We tried to make dinner quick, but ended up lingering at a corner table while the vaqueros in their hats and boots blew their cash on round after round of drinks for the waitresses.
- Tacos Junior deserves senior status on Federal
- Rico Pollo won't fly on Federal, but San Antonio Mexican Bakery raises above the fray
- Tangy shrimp help solve the puzzle of Torres Mexican Restaurant
The owners of Las Islitas have taken advantage of the vacancy by moving from a barely visible spot behind a shoe store at Evans and Federal to this prime location on a hilltop corner, their street-facing sign brightly beaming the promise of seafood in the style of Nayarit -- one of Mexico's Pacific Coast states.
Remnants of the old nightclub still persist in the vacant DJ booth and neon beer signs, but the rest of the place has been updated with coastal-themed wall murals populated with mermaids and cartoon versions of the sea life featured on the menu. That menu bears no trace of the space's El Salvadoran predecessor, offering instead a long list of shrimp in a dizzying choice of cooking techniques and sauces, various ceviches and cocktails, several whole-fish preparations, and just a scant smattering of more familiar dishes featuring such land animals as pigs, chickens and cows.
Much like Torres Mexican Restaurant across the street, Las Islitas offers quite a few dishes I've never seen in other Denver restaurants. And I realized that my wife and I might have needed a bigger group to diversify/eat our order when the waitress began bringing our dishes and everything seemed to feature shrimp in one form or another.
Because I enjoyed the vuelve a la vida -- or "return to life" -- so much at Torres, I'd ordered the same seafood cocktail here. This version was lacking calamari rings, but instead included cubes of abalone, thin slices of octopus and fat pink shrimp, all topped with a mound of diced avocado and a couple of oysters; the cocktail cup could barely contain this bounty. I have no doubt that the majority of the ingredients had been canned or frozen, but the light, tangy broth and fresh avocado gave the dish a brightness that accentuated the various textures of the mollusks and crustaceans. A caddy of bottled sauces -- including one housemade version -- was also provided to kick up the heat or tomato sweetness to meet individual tastes.
Continue reading for more on Las Islitas.