“Which side would you like with the shrimp?” the cashier at Isla Vida asked. When my friend and I hesitated, she added. “And don’t ask me, because they’re all good.”
She said it with a twinkle in her eye, and the combination of justified swagger and mild impatience made us both laugh, because we were having a hard time deciding. And you know what? She was right: All the sides are good.
Isla Vida is one of those restaurants that makes reviewing restaurants such a joy, because eating there is a joy. Up and down the line, the dishes are flavorful, the vibe is full of good humor, and the staff is obviously invested in everyone’s enjoyment. I’ll just drop my only complaint right here: They need to bring you a bowl for bones because the plates fill up quickly with detritus. But that’s all I really got.
Fast-casual Isla Vida is a successor to the full-service Farmerbrown. When that 13-year-old Tenderloin soul food joint closed a few weeks ago, it caused a stronger-than-average ripple of sadness through the eaterati, not only because it was so good, but because it hung on for such a long time in such a challenging part of town. (The first time I went was for a holiday party with an open bar, and oh Lord, was I full when I left.) Chef-owner Jay Foster shuttered Farmerbrown owing to high operating costs, but his satellite location at SFO remains up and running — and his seven-year-old Little Skillet got a thorough renovation in Mid-Market earlier this year.
So this project comes with a strong provenance, and co-owner Matthew Washington is a Fillmore native who’d longed to open something up in his neighborhood. So the space that used to be the (also much-missed) Black Bark BBQ got a new paint job with several trim colors, to the point where even an outside vent is an eye-catching turquoise-on-hot-pink. The ceiling tiles are floral, too.
But the food is the thing, and Isla Vida is, frankly, killing it. Juicy and impeccably seasoned, the wood-fired Cuban chicken ($8 for a quarter, $12 for a half, $18 for a whole) is citrusy and low on heat, because you have two options to spice it up, an herbaceous green seasoning paste that comes in a little cup or a tableside bottle of electric-orange mango-habanero sauce. They also apply to the jerk chicken alternative, which, while it isn’t cooked over charcoal, is equally moist and flavorful all the way to the bone. And it’s not on the menu, but Isla Vida also has a “bumbaclot sauce” that burns and burns (the word is basically Jamaican for “douchebag”).
The garlic shrimp ($17.75), served with the heads intact and accompanied by a green salad plus some pickled onions, are just as tangy-sweet as they are garlicky, and the tamarind sauce that glazes them goes great with the even sweeter tostones, or twice-fried plantains — if that happens to be the side that you order, as my friend and I did after getting teased. Guava ribs ($16.95), so wholly unlike any U.S. barbecue style I know of, don’t so much fall off the bone as expel it, and they contrast nicely with the earthy congri, that Cuban black-beans-and-rice side dish sometimes known as Moors and Christians.
These are not gut-busting portions, but apart from Nigel Jones at Kaya, there’s not a lot of this food happening around town. (Media Noche in the Mission is a wholly different take on Cuban food.) And for a break from all the meat, a snappily dressed avocado mango salad ($13) is a citrus-forward palate cleanse, with a few plantain chips for crunch. Someone at Isla Vida — or, more likely, just about everyone — is paring, peeling, chopping, and squeezing an enormous amount of fruit. Even the carafes standing at attention near the water station are pre-iced, with slices of orange and lime, plus there are pineapple chunks in the water vessel, too.
Brunch is a separate happening. Sprinkled with sugar, the empanada-like guava cheese pastries (three for $6.50) have that immensely satisfying outer shell around a flaky middle, and a subtle interior. A ribeye-steak-and-egg Cubano ($15.50) sounds like it might be a little extra for late morning, but the meat is already cut up in small pieces before the sandwich gets pressed, and the hash browns on the side are a bit of Little Skillet peeking through. Even the veggie scramble, something that appears on every brunch menu in the galaxy, comes in distinct layers, of lightly vinegary greens over the egg over a sweet-ish tomato sauce you can mop up with a few pieces of bread. To make the implicit explicit: A lot of dishes, brunch and dinner, are either vegetarian or gluten-free. And in general, everything Isla Vida does plays with sweetness in varying degrees, tempering it from all sides with various other flavor notes, chiefly smoke, citrus, and heat.
While they don’t serve alcohol, they’re lighting the way for how to make non-alcoholic beverages feel like more than an afterthought. Beyond the sparkling guava limeade, there’s a hibiscus punch with a wonderful nose — and it’s only $2. The $6 Mateo Mango, almost lassi-like in its thickness, is just a treat. All of them are house-made, it almost goes without saying. At every visit, someone came out to check on us multiple times, just to see how everything was going. By the end of my second visit, we’d all graduated to handshakes. By the third, flirting. The intangible elements, what makes eating at Isla Vide feel like you’re swept up in something special, are all in place. TL;DR: I fucking love this restaurant so hard.
Isla Vida, 1325 Fillmore St., 415-678-5171 or islavidasf.com