Okay, we all know about the Mexican restaurants in Milwaukee. I’ll review some of those in the near future. (Cempazuchi’s is a must.) For today, I want to talk about another place that’s quite different, although Spanish is still the lingua franca here. On 35th and National, you’ll find a mom and pop restaurant called La Isla, which specializes in Puerto Rican cuisine. Such a small island, Puerto Rico is, and yet such an incredible array of dishes. If the island’s size were proportionate to the flavor and diversity of its food, it’d look more like Australia!
I’ve been to Puerto Rico many times (and hence that amazing picture). I’ve got lots of relatives there, and I love everything about it: the food, the music, the people, language, the temperature, the cheap cigar shops, the beaches and, of course, the Catholic culture. Well, alright, I don’t like everything. The traffic borders on utter pandemonium. Few things will send you to the happy house as quickly as attempting to navigate the streets and highways of Puerto Rico. Red traffic lights are optional. But that’s another subject.
Let’s talk a bit about the food. It’s heavy. It’s greasy. It’s not always particularly healthy. A lot is deep-fried. But it’s wonderful. I grew up with the smells of Puerto Rican cooking. Family get togethers always boasted a huge pot of arroz con gandules and yes, tostones. When it comes to the powers of culinary seduction, few things are as evocative of the warm ocean breezes passing through palm branches as the rich aromas emanating from a Puerto Rican’s kitchen.
In Milwaukee, we are fortunate to have a great Puerto Rican restaurant within our city limits. La Isla offers exceptional cuisine, but I have to insert a qualifier here: if you’re looking for wonderful service, full of shiny happy people, this isn’t your place. The waitresses are young gals from the island. They’re not mean or nasty, but they aren’t particularly chatty, warm or outwardly enthusiastic about their job. I’ve tried to crack their outer shell with charm, humor and Spanish, but to no avail. Ah well. They speak an accented English so don’t worry about any serious communication snafus. If you have the capacity to look past the somewhat aloof waiting staff, with you’re eye on the prize, you’ll do just fine. I get the sense that it is not a personal thing, it’s just how they roll at La Isla.
There is plenty of room to stretch out your arms. Quaint, colorful paintings coat the walls, calling to mind the tropical mystic of the rustic campos of Puerto Rico. It’s a family run place, not at all fancy but certainly authentic. They have an impressive menu full of quintessentially Puerto Rican dishes. You have to try the shrimp mofongo, a Puerto Rican staple if ever there was one, made of fried, smashed plantains, lots of garlic, large shrimp, all of which is combined and then formed into a ball and topped off with a fabulous salsa. Mofongo is not easy to describe to non-Puerto Ricans. Just try it. If you can’t travel to Puerto Rico, eat some mofongo and you’re already halfway there. Another Caribbean classic that La Isla has perfected is pernil, roasted pork flavored to perfection. Rice and chick peas, (arroz con gandules) are a must as a side; as I said before, it’s one of the earliest meals I can remember eating as a boy, and La Isla’s version doesn’t disappoint. They boast an impressive list of appetizers as well, lots of simple Puerto Rican starters that are loaded with flavor, like bacalaitos (salted cod fritters), that you’d be certain to find in any mom and pop restaurant in San Juan, but you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in Milwaukee. A minor critique: the tostones, which are flattened, deep-fried plantain chips usually served as a side, could use some work. They are usually too thick at La Isla, and not cooked enough (I prefer them thin and crispy). So far, that has been my only gripe about La Isla, apart from the curious wait staff. The portions are generous, and the prices very reasonable. You get your money’s worth.
So if you’re down for something different and good, swing by La Isla and experience Puerto Rico.