A quarter is one of several mementos embedded in the bar top at La Isla in Redmond. It is the coin co-owners Alfonso Gonzalez and Jason Mikos flipped to resolve their design disagreements. Perhaps Congress could adopt this decision-making method, because it certainly made for a successful collaboration.
Even more than the original La Isla, a neighborhood favorite in Ballard since 2005, the 2-month-old Redmond restaurant evokes Old San Juan, no small feat in a suburban strip-mall locale. In the dining room, scrolling ironwork, ceramic tiles and splashes of tropical color play against the aged-rum hue of high-backed booths clustered like barrio storefronts along a faux cobblestone alley.
In the bar and lounge, there are more booths — just right for two — along with tall tables where happy-hour crowds convene over hefty mojitos, rum-spiked red sangria, and milkshake-thick piña coladas topped with whipped cream. For serious tippling, there’s a selection of rums, each with helpful flavor descriptors. (Ask about flights if you really want to explore.)
You’ll want snacks with those drinks. Try carne frita, marinated flash-fried pork just clinging to the rib bones, crisp and pliant at once; or bacalaitos, golden, cilantro-flecked salt-cod fritters flat as pancakes.
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Ajilimojili, a piquant garlic and pepper sauce, flatters those fritters as much as the empanadillas, crackling, fist-sized pastry pockets plumped with assorted fillings, all good, but most memorable was the carne molida, ground beef with sofrito (onion, cilantro, garlic and pepper purée).
I also liked camarones, sautéed prawns smothered with searing habanero-jalapeño sauce, but not the throat-clutching acidity of the ceviche.
The Redmond menu is virtually identical to the Ballard menu. La Isla excels in robust, everyday Puerto Rican fare, dishes such as slow-roasted, tangy pulled pork (pernil), delicately breaded and lightly fried catfish fingers (pez gato), and my favorite — pollo guisado, chicken thighs stewed with olives, capers and sofrito.
Each of those are part of hearty entree plates that include white rice, wonderful red beans simmered in cilantro-rich tomato sauce, crunchy tostones (fried disks of mashed green plantain) and vinaigrette-dressed salad greens.
Pernil also appears in pastelon, a casserole of sweet plantains, mozzarella and piquant red pepper sauce. (It and several other menu items are labeled gluten-free; there is a meat-free pastelon, as well as other vegetarian options.)
At lunch, pernil crowns a bowl of arroz con gandules (rice moistened with a pungent stew of lentil-like pigeon peas). Order the tripleta and you’ll find pernil under melted Swiss, along with chopped ham and steak, lettuce and crunchy potato sticks, all stacked on a soft, toasted pan sobao bun. Surely this is Puerto Rico’s answer to a Big Mac. Best of all: It comes with fine sweet potato fries.
On one visit (out of three), something was amiss in the kitchen. “Popcorn” chicken consisted of marble-sized nuggets of grayish meat with no discernible flavor. Grilled wild coho salmon imbued with lemon and garlic was perfectly delightful, but bistec encebollado, billed as an 8-ounce flatiron steak, resembled something you’d chop up for a Philly cheesesteak. Moreover, entrees seemed to have been sitting for a while: the salad was wilted, the beans cool, the rice underneath hard around the edges.
Any kitchen can have an off night, but service was consistently deferential. If there’s no one at the host stand, a server will greet and seat you. Not all of them know their way around the menu yet, but they know who to ask for guidance and they do.
On every visit, I noted the hum of happy customers. Date-night couples shared a warm guava torte, the must-have dessert. Parents relaxed while their kids contentedly crayoned.
Large groups were common: friends, co-workers, extended families gathered at long tables. Some had clearly been expected, but tables were quickly arranged for walk-ins. The space designed with the flip of a coin is not only attractive, it’s flexible.
“Generally, Puerto Ricans do not go to a restaurant to enjoy a good meal,” Erisbelia Garriga writes in the introduction to her book, “Homestyle Puerto Rican Cooking.” “Puerto Ricans tend to cook for their immediate family and for ‘just in case’ somebody else shows up for visiting.”
Just in case, Redmond, La Isla is ready for you.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.