lusty LATIN: La Isla

RER 5.16.13

It was my first time, strange, because the hole in the wall, the tiny restaurant, rather, is a fixture of my hometown, Hoboken. I had walked passed the small storefront, many times, entertaining the possibility of diving into something new and mildly foreign; speculating sitting in the small outdoor dining area, soaking up the sun and the sounds. But for some reason, I was intimidated. Perhaps it was the local fame of the Cuban eatery, or the unfamiliar territory of the luncheon, or maybe even, it was just across town.

RER 5.16.13
But, that day was my first time. It was sunny and warm; people dressed for heat though slightly deceived by the weather. We held hands, hungry, and meandering with a kind of purpose. I did not know what to expect. I was hesitant, but oddly intrigued. 

RER 5.16.13
His suggestion of La Isla sparked interest, but also concern. I had never been. I was anxious. Sometimes, as much as we want to try something new, it’s not easy. I had heard so many good things, like quality byob brunches dancing until late afternoon, and sweet milky jolts of caffeine energizing commuters, or even the daily specials, coveted and tracked. Nonetheless, I was not in the mood to experiment, not wanting to take a chance because my mouth was watering for something simple, something comfortable. But the warmth swayed me, seducing me to adventure and mystery, like warm weather often does.

RER 5.16.13
So we went. And it was a brilliant decision. Our meal there would be classified as one of our best meals in a long long time. We had resorted to Chinese take away and easy ways out for a while now, stuck in that rut that only grows deeper.

La Isla is small, but it is endearing. Somehow it does not feel like Hoboken at all. There is not the same stuffiness or yuppie shadow that other eateries have succumbed to. It feels genuine and neighborly, like the spot you can stay for hours without getting kicked out, as long as you get more café con leche, or another round of tostones. The colorful fresh flowers on every table, the long lunch counter, or even the Cuban memorabilia, all speak to home, someone’s home.

RER 5.16.13
We could not tell if it was lunchtime, because it was in betweentimes, like twilight. But of course, my eyes and stomach landed on one of the Thursday lunch items, and luckily they had not run out. Others were not so lucky, as we heard a man on a phone being gently let down.

The menu is straightforward, Spanish and English, traditional with a twist. Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, lunch specials, entrees, sides and so forth.

RER 5.16.13
We shared the platano asado and a solo croqueta de jamon. The platano was a raucous riot of flavors; sweet, savory, spicy, meaty. The roasted yellow plantain was split lengthwise, filled with meaty pico de gallo, and topped with queso blanco. It was hot and sweet on the outside, salty and textured on the inside, and the cheese melded the different elements. The croqueta came from a glass case with a heating lamp; we saw its move from behind the lunch counter to our side and our table. The croqueta was filled with ham, soft and mushy, and then breaded and fried crisp on the outside. It did not have the creamy texture of croquetas past, but it was more meaty and concrete.

RER 5.16.13
My masitas de puerco came stark on the plate, shared with my side of dark maduros, and black beans floating in a tiny bowl. It did not look like a lot— not a lot of food or presentation— but once I bit into that first fried pork morsel, all was forgiven. I squeezed the lime hard onto the tender pork pieces, brightening the fatty meat, and opening up the brilliant and traditional mélange of citrus and pork. There were only five or six pork pieces on my plate, but it felt like a happy eternity, each piece different and delicious. The maduros were super sweet and blackened from cooking, creating a crunchy crust around the outside of the soft plantain. And the black beans sans rice were soupy, wet, and soft, with moments of salty pork.

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He had one of the set meals, tasajo con boniato. It was a beautiful display of yellow rice speckled with pigeon peas at the bottom, next a layer of dark gray green Cuban sweet potatoes, smothered with brightly colored sauced shredded meat, topped with golden strings of fried onions. It sounds weird, but it tasted amazing. The spiciness of the braised dry-cured meat went perfectly with the sweet creaminess of the dark potatoes. The crunch of the fried onions added variety, while the yellow rice was a strong foundation for the eclectic meal.

RER 5.16.13
Dessert. Was. Mind-blowing. We had the unfortunate experience of eating tres leches cake elsewhere, and we were marred enough from the experience to initially cast off the option. But the server insisted that it was a top seller, along with the always-popular flan. The cake came in its own little ramekin, topped with a beautiful swirl of toasted meringue, and delicately decorated with a single blueberry and a sliced strawberry on top . Underneath the sweet cloud of soft meringue was the vanilla sponge cake, soaked in three different kinds of milk and rum. The dessert gave off the scent of almond, rum and grainy sweetened condensed milk. The removal of every bite in the small, tight dish resulted in a pool of the sweetness— a marriage of desert and desire, sweetness and silent epiphany.  As the meringue would melt on our tongues, the sponge cake would vanish lost in the sappy liquid it was saturated with. This cake was pure magic.

All I can say is… I can’t wait to go back! 
JAR 5.16.13

1 comment:

  1. Looks amazing!! I've passed by that place countless times. Definitely going to give it a try ; )


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