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Review

Mary Lagier

Isla Vida

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Written by
Mary Lagier

Time outs are a human need as vital as water or speaking loudly into wireless earbuds. And while there are a lot of ways to unwind after a long day or bad week - from binging on episodes of The Real Housepets Of Greenwich, Connecticut to meeting up with your friends at a bar to boast about how your job is harder than everyone else’s - if you’re in the Fillmore, you could just go to Isla Vida instead.

When you walk into this Caribbean spot for dinner after a long day, by the time you sit down at one of the long communal tables, you’ll already feel more relaxed. From the bright dining room and ceiling tiles to the smell of chickens roasting on spits to the super friendly staff, there’s a distinct change of pace in here versus the outside world, like when the boarding door opens on your plane headed to vacation.

The staff really goes out of their way to make sure you have a good time. They’re super friendly, and do things like bring you extra sauces to try with your food just because and suggest you order one dish from the menu the way they like it. By the time you leave, you’d choose these people to do a trust fall with, as a charades partner, or at least thank them sincerely on the way out for the recommendations.

Mary Lagier

The menu here is a mix of Caribbean and Cuban staples, like jerk chicken, congri, Cubano sandwiches, and maduros. Regardless of what else you order, you need to get the jerk chicken. It’s spicy, but not like you’re getting thrown into the sun spicy. More like someone turned up the heat on the hot tub without telling you spicy - the real burn comes after the initial heat and it’s the best thing on the menu. If you and chicken got in a recent argument and aren’t on speaking terms though, the seasonal jerk vegetable plate has the same effect and will leave enough room to try the Cubano that’s crispy on the outside and great in pretty much every other way too. The sandwich isn’t spicy, but like most things on the menu, it comes with one of their many homemade sauces, like jalapeno vinegar or the aji that’s great with the tostones. If this place bottled their sauces, we’d probably head out the door with a few jars each time we came here.

You’re not going to walk out of Isla Vida and talk about it for a month, but when you leave for the night, you’ll know you were in the right place. Come here to split a few large plates and some congri with a few friends before turning in for the night or heading to get more work done. You needed a quick break from reality for a minute, and that’s exactly what you’ll get here.

Food Rundown

Jerk Chicken

This is the best thing on the menu. Perfectly cooked chicken covered in jerk seasoning that sticks around for a while, and you’ll want it to. Get this on your table.

Cuban-Style Chicken

This rotisserie chicken is super smokey and it’s really, really good. If you want some kick, dip it in the aji it comes with.

Cubano

A really good, classic Cuban sandwich. Crispy, flattened bread with pork, cheese, more pork, pickles, and mustard. It can get a little soggy if you wait too long, but you won’t. Split this with someone else who got the jerk chicken and you’ll be set.

Garlic Shrimp

Garlicky, sweet shrimp in mojo sauce. Not the best thing on the menu, but definitely deserves a spot on the team.

Seasonal Jerk Vegetable Plate

This has the same kick as the jerk chicken, but isn’t as heavy. If you’re trying to be healthier, get this and you won’t be missing a thing.

Grilled Ribeye Sandwich

If we’re getting anything to go, it’s two of these to take with us on a hike. This sandwich has big pieces of steak in a mild jerk sauce on a soft roll with caramelized onions.

BBQ Guava Spare Ribs

Fall-off-the-bone ribs that are sweet and sticky. The jerk chicken is better though.

Avocado Mango Salad

This has warm beans in the bottom and it somehow works. It’s also large enough to split with three other people.

Congri

Beans and rice cooked together. These aren’t spicy, but they are heavily seasoned and should be next to whatever you order.

Tostones

Make sure to dip these fried plantains in the aji they come with. Without it, they’re a little bland, but that’s nature’s fault, not the tostone’s.

French Fries

A haybale of fries that you’ll need to grab a claw of to effectively eat. If you’re willing to do that, these are pretty good fries.

Maduros

These fried sweet plantains can be a little too sweet sometimes. If you’re trying to kick eating candy, order these.

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