La Isla in Ballard offers the home-style cooking of Puerto Rico without the cost of a flight to the island. Pollo Guisado, tostones, alcapurrias, gandules and dangerously good mojitos are among the offering in this restaurant filled with color, music and art.
Got tortilla fatigue? Suffering from enchilada excess or guacamole glut? La Isla has the cure: tostones, alcapurrias and gandules.
Those are some of the specialties on the menu at this buoyant Ballard bar and restaurant, filled with color, music and art. The kitchen’s strength is the home-style cooking of Puerto Rico, known affectionately as La Isla by residents and expats alike.
The island’s cuisine is a stew of Taino Indian, African and European influences. A key flavor component is sofrito, a rough purée that typically involves garlic, peppers, tomatoes, onion, olives, capers and cilantro.
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Sofrito Rico was this restaurant’s name when it opened five years ago. It was re-christened La Isla when one the three original partners decamped.
Current owners Jason Mikos and Alfonso Gonzales expanded into the adjacent storefront last summer, which tripled the square footage and allowed room for an attractive bar, popular with a well-under-40 cohort who suck down icy tropical cocktails or sip one of the dozens of rums neat.
An informal survey one Friday night revealed that mojitos outnumbered beers by seven to one. They are dangerously good, muddled with lots of mint and enough lime to temper the sweet. A pal who once lived on the island’s northwest coast took one sip of the intensely banana-flavored “Surfing Rincon” and suddenly she was 19 and back on the beach again.
Pollo Guisado sent me tripping down memory lane. Those sofrito-simmered skinless, boneless chicken thighs had the soft texture of my mother’s “soup chicken” with flavor deeply embedded in every moist fiber.
Pulled pork (pernil) displayed similar character. Soft without being mushy, the taste is sweet, tangy and lush at once. It’s very good baked in a casserole between layers of sweet plantain and mozzarella; even better packed into the puffy fried turnovers called empanadillas.
If you just want to wallow in a juicy pile of pulled pork, order the Pernil Special. Like every “Plato Principale” it comes with white rice, excellent red beans simmered in a sweet tomato sauce, a slice of ripe avocado and tostones, crispy disks of fried green plantain.
Tostones are ubiquitous. I grew very fond of slathering them with mojito sauce (mashed garlic, lemon juice, olive oil), mojito flamboyant (its red-pepper kin), and ajilimojili (garlic cream studded with onion and bell pepper).
Sauces are key condiments that round out a dish or provide an important flavor boost. Scoop up enough ajilimojili with your bacalaitos, and you won’t notice the soft achiote-tinged salt cod pancakes are short on salt cod.
A splash of tart, chile-stoked pique sauce in a cup of asopao de mariscos sharpened the soup’s already tangy tomato broth dense with salmon, shrimp, tubers and rice. As a dip for Alcapurrias, pique sauce lent a welcome jolt that countered the sweet, doughy shell of green banana, taro root and plantain encasing savory ground beef and sofrito.
Formed into cups, tostones accompany gandules dip, a vinaigrette-steeped mélange of chopped onion, cilantro, bell pepper and small round pigeon peas (gandules). It’s the Puerto Rican equivalent of chips and salsa.
Substitute bits of salmon for pigeon peas, lime juice for vinegar, add jalapeños and habaneros and you have ceviche picante, though not picante enough to mask fish that tasted past its prime.
Grilled salmon was a little overcooked, but not as dry as the knife-challenging chuletas — deep-fried pork chops. The kitchen showed more finesse with lime-marinated catfish fingers (pez gato) delicately breaded and fried. Buttery sautéed prawns sauced with hot chili peppers and cool mango-mint salsa provided a tongue-thrilling tug of war.
Desserts fall on the soothing side, which is just what you want after a garlic-ridden meal. Cheesecake lovers will be drawn to a three-layered torte with a shortbreadlike base, guava filling and light, cream-cheese custard on top. The frillier tres leches cake is a moist, frosted, whipped cream-smothered crowd pleaser. A big scoop of excellent vanilla ice-cream comes with both.
Churros? Who needs them.
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