Carla Meyer

Dining: Mariscos Las Islitas

The expressions on my friends’ faces said it all as they took their seats, soaked in the atmosphere and spotted the food. Their heads turned. Their eyes widened. Yes, jaws dropped. It was all very big and cartoonish, but it was real, too.

The jukebox was blaring, up-tempo and Latin. The kitchen was hopping, with more than a dozen pinned tickets hanging at eye level for cooks who never stood still.

There was a hum in the large, open room, which was bright and weathered and warm. Scores of customers laughed and chatted and drank beer. More than anything, they dug into their large plates of seafood – shrimp, whole fish overhanging the edges of plates, mussels, octopus and more. Dishes came and went. Servers darted from table to table. A line formed at the door.

Like many of you, perhaps, these friends I invited are not only eager for a good meal, they crave a dining experience that moves and inspires in some special way. One peripatetic companion had been to every continent but Australia and Antarctica, and yet here, 15 minutes from downtown along a working class and largely Latino stretch of south Sacramento, he was overjoyed with a sense of discovery. This was a world that seemed so very far away.

It was apparent within moments. One by one, as they nibbled on thick, crisp tortilla chips and some wonderfully salty pico de gallo-style ceviche, they said pretty much the same thing. How long has this place been open? Why haven’t I heard of it?

It isn’t often that we step into a restaurant and everything comes together in some kind of pitch-perfect way, but that’s what happened on a recent Friday night at Mariscos Las Islitas, a Mexican restaurant that is family-friendly, affordable, unassuming and, if you appreciate food that makes a statement about flavor while illuminating a culture, a place worth a look.

It starts with the opening act, the complimentary chips and salsa fresca, which we came to realize was not some simple pico de gallo but a ceviche. This isn’t merely a gratuitous filler. It’s a statement about what’s to come. There’s a richness and flavor to this bowl of dip. With chopped tomatoes mixed with seasoning, cilantro and finely shredded fish, there’s a saltiness that lingers but doesn’t overwhelm. With the thick, crisp discs of tortillas in stacks, its impossible to resist.

On two previous visits for lunch, the room was not nearly as lively. But the food was always prepared skillfully – expert cooking combined with hearty and nuanced seasonings.

Several dishes are so good – so eclectic, lively, tender and delicious – they represent much of what Mariscos Las Islitas is all about. One of the most memorable is an $15.50 appetizer called “Levanta Muertos” (rough translation: “raise the dead”), which includes a dazzling hodgepodge of shrimp, octopus, abalone, baby clams and mussels cooked in a light reddish sauce that’s mildly spicy. It’s an oversized plate of food we all shared and raved about.

The restaurant manager says this excellent dish and many others stem from recipes that are true to Nayarit, the small Mexican state along the Pacific coast. The seasonings are complex and inviting, deep and earthy mixed with spicy, tangy, even a touch of sweetness.

While the ingredients in this appetizer might seem daunting for less adventurous eaters, the eating is very accessible – even the octopus, served thinly sliced, is very tender (not the chewy, pencil-eraser texture you might expect). You can eat the dish with your hands, pick at it with a fork or, best of all, slide some of each kind of seafood onto a corn tortilla and enjoy it as a taco.

The Langostinos ($14.99), which we also shared as an appetizer, are mesmerizing, though they may not be for everyone. The seasoning is deep and dark and earthy, and yet it’s elusive, too. The menu calls it a house sauce, and its pungent, smoky notes suggest the use of ancho chili, along with a mix of other spices. Though they look like shrimp, true langostinos are different, with slim pincers and rich tender meat you access by peeling away the thin outer shell.

Some may blanch at the aroma and flavor of this dish, for it is uncommon to the typical American palate. But once you reconcile the flavor with the smell, you could well enjoy these as much as we did. It’s a great dish with a beer (the restaurant carries just a small selection of common Mexican and American brands). The horchata, the sweet, creamy white beverage made by steeping ground rice, is also a good bet. This drink ($2.50 for large), flavored with cinnamon, can cool the palate if you take on too much spicy heat.

De Los 7 (Siete) Mares is a soup that just might blow your doors off. It’s massive, for one thing, a full meal and then some. The name refers to the seven varieties of seafood in a single bowl. If you imagine that it would be overflowing with ingredients, you’re correct. The crab legs are hanging over the rim, the mussels and clams and (imitation) abalone are buried in the bright red broth that’s intensely flavored and moderately spicy, with catfish stacked on top. Here’s a great dish that really defines the joy of eating here.

The food at this eatery is consistent and flavorful, but don’t expect the elegant upscale atmosphere you would find at dining destinations Mayhuel or Zocalo. The vibe is casual and lively and overtly unpretentious. Lots of people with kids. Lots of big tables with friends making toasts with bottles of beer. My Tecate was served in the can. During my several visits, the clientele was almost exclusively Latino, and it was easy to spot an array of large belt buckles and well-worn cowboy boots.

The good eating just goes on and on. Camarones al la Kora ($14.99), shrimp cooked with a mix of peppers, is something of a signature dish. So is the eye-catching Mojarra Frita al Gusto ($11.99) a whole tilapia (including head, tail, and lips that pucker) is another dish that defines this eatery. The fish is fried to a deep brown, and as you eat you can tease the fish off the bones and find crispy bits and tender white fish with each bite. This is a large serving with rice, refried beans and a side salad.

If there is a weakness, the beans and rice are merely ordinary. They fill out the plate, but do nothing to elevate the dishes.

While seafood is clearly the focal point here, meat dishes, while small in number, are done with surprising distinction. The steak, shrimp and chicken fajitas were excellent, with the tender steak strips sporting a charred flavor. With the sizzling plate of peppers and onions, it’s another winner on a menu loaded with one solid dish after another.