In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
The last time I was in the space currently occupied by Mariscos Las Islitas, it was an El Salvadoran joint called El Cuscatleco. I was sorry to see it close, but only because there just aren't enough places to get pupusas in Denver. Still, El Cuscatleco was an odd restaurant -- trying hard to be a nightclub but lacking any real nightlife vibe -- and my one meal there was painfully awkward and uncomfortable. Food didn't seem to be on anyone's mind: The all-female waitstaff was primarily occupied with drinking tequila shots and dancing in front of the DJ booth with the male customers. We tried to make dinner quick, but ended up lingering at a corner table while the vaqueros in their hats and boots blew their cash on round after round of drinks for the waitresses.
See also: - Tacos Junior deserves senior status on Federal - Rico Pollo won't fly on Federal, but San Antonio Mexican Bakery raises above the fray - Tangy shrimp help solve the puzzle of Torres Mexican Restaurant
The owners of Las Islitas have taken advantage of the vacancy by moving from a barely visible spot behind a shoe store at Evans and Federal to this prime location on a hilltop corner, their street-facing sign brightly beaming the promise of seafood in the style of Nayarit -- one of Mexico's Pacific Coast states.
Remnants of the old nightclub still persist in the vacant DJ booth and neon beer signs, but the rest of the place has been updated with coastal-themed wall murals populated with mermaids and cartoon versions of the sea life featured on the menu. That menu bears no trace of the space's El Salvadoran predecessor, offering instead a long list of shrimp in a dizzying choice of cooking techniques and sauces, various ceviches and cocktails, several whole-fish preparations, and just a scant smattering of more familiar dishes featuring such land animals as pigs, chickens and cows.
Much like Torres Mexican Restaurant across the street, Las Islitas offers quite a few dishes I've never seen in other Denver restaurants. And I realized that my wife and I might have needed a bigger group to diversify/eat our order when the waitress began bringing our dishes and everything seemed to feature shrimp in one form or another.
Because I enjoyed the vuelve a la vida -- or "return to life" -- so much at Torres, I'd ordered the same seafood cocktail here. This version was lacking calamari rings, but instead included cubes of abalone, thin slices of octopus and fat pink shrimp, all topped with a mound of diced avocado and a couple of oysters; the cocktail cup could barely contain this bounty. I have no doubt that the majority of the ingredients had been canned or frozen, but the light, tangy broth and fresh avocado gave the dish a brightness that accentuated the various textures of the mollusks and crustaceans. A caddy of bottled sauces -- including one housemade version -- was also provided to kick up the heat or tomato sweetness to meet individual tastes.
My wife had been sure to request her camarones al mojo de ajo with the shrimp in their shells. This familiar dish of shrimp in garlic butter benefited from the flavor boost provided by cooking whole shrimp with their heads, tails, legs and all. And, of course, once you get past the idea of your food looking back at you, shrimp heads and shells are perfectly edible and full of briny goodness. The garlicky critters came sided with a ramekin of bright lime- and chile-tinged salsa and a dollop of what proved to be standard, store-bought mayonnaise.
My sizzling platter of bacon-wrapped shrimp captured the wow factor so popular a couple of decades ago when the fajitas craze was in full steam, but with the homey familiarity that bacon always provides. With a pile of crackling bacon and shrimp smothered in molten white cheese and tangled with grilled peppers and onions before me, I left behind my desire to unearth authentic regional treasures and simply enjoyed it for the hot mess it was, washing it down with a well-made michelada -- or chelada, if you prefer. I have yet to figure out what combination of lime, tomato juice, hot sauce and Worcestershire I will get when I order one or the other. I suspect it's actually a running joke among Mexican bartenders.
Las Islitas provides a great balance of new and challenging dishes -- at least to those of us unfamiliar with the regional specialties of Nayarit -- and comforting, familiar presentations and flavors. And with the help of the friendly waitstaff, I was able to learn something new (the difference between a Campechana cocktail and vuelve a la vida, according to Las Islitas, is primarily the addition of oysters) while still satisfying my ever-present urge for salty pork fat. There may be one less place in Denver to eat pupusas, but Las Islitas joins Torres to make this section of Federal a virtual Riviera of seafood bordering an ocean of green chile.
For more from our trip up Federal, visit our "A Federal Case" archives.
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