Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar
30 Centerpointe Drive #12
La Palma, CA 90623
I might have a problem. It's a problem I'm more than happy to have, but a problem nonetheless. I am addicted to Cuban food. The main problem is that there are not too many Cuban places to eat in OC. My unofficial count is at about 7 restaurants that I'd consider strictly Cuban. Yes, there are some spots that kind of verge on Cuban cuisine, but they also have other food that they specialize in.
Of the seven Cuban restaurants in OC, I have been to five of them so far, and my favorites have been Bella Cuba, Moros, and Habana, in that order. Porto's, of course, is a classic, and you couldn't get me to go back to Felix in Orange again because the two times I have visited, their food has been bone dry. If you are looking for the best I have had in Southern Californa it's definitely El Cochinito in Silver Lake. I was definitely intrigued as to where newcomer Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar was going to end up on my list of OC Cuban spots.
I had read a review about Isla in the now-defunct, but not forgotten OC Weekly, and a glowing review in the OC Register, where the only complaint Brad Johnson could muster was about the noise level inside the restaurant, (he was not wrong about that). Isla is a family-owned restaurant, with items from not only Cuba, but also the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. The matriarch of the family, Senora Deysi, is the inspiration for the food that they serve at Isla.
I had made 5pm reservations on a recent Saturday to meet up with my parents here. Reservations are definitely the way to go, as the restaurant and enclosed front patio filled up rather quickly during our visit. There are maybe twenty or so tables inside, another ten on the patio, and a ten-seat bar off to the right-hand side of the restaurant. The dining room is lit with hanging chandeliers and the obligatory pictures of Cuba adorning the walls. A pleasing kind of art deco vibe fills the space.
The menu reads like a greatest hits of Cuban cuisine. It starts with seven traditional appetizers, there's a quartet of soups and salads, beef, chicken, pork, and seafood entrees, a Mofongo, and sandwiches, which are unfortunately only available from 11 to 5pm. Since we were seated at exactly 5:03 it prevented my mom from having the only thing that she had her heart set on this evening, a Cuban sandwich. Even a request from our server to the kitchen yielded an emphatic no that they would not be making a sandwich three minutes past their 5pm cutoff time. Apparently, they lock up their sandwich ingredients in a time activated safe, which will only be opened at 11am on the next day. At this point, my mom checked out, and would not be eating anything at Isla on this evening. Not a great start to our meal. Let's see if the night could be salvaged with what the other three of us ordered.
It's a Cuban restaurant, so no chips and salsa insight, but instead you get Plantain and Yucca Chips with Garlic Sauce to start out with. I enjoyed the plantains, more than the yucca chips. The real star here was the garlic sauce, which actually made even the blander yucca chips taste good.
Out of the seven tapas options, we settled on the Empanadas ($10) which are offered with either beef or chicken. We went with chicken. Even though I'm more partial to beef, I really enjoyed the empanada that I consumed way too quickly. It was filled with plenty of chicken and the two sauces served with this were pretty stellar. The green was my favorite by just a bit.
My dad is pretty unpredictable with what he usually gets in restaurants. I never know what he's leaning towards until he orders. On this evening he could not resist the Salmon A La Parrilla ($22). I have a love-hate relationship with salmon. It's either really good or it's not to my liking at all. This was definitely the former. It was cooked perfectly, the garlic sauce was delicious, and I was a little whistful that I did not get the salmon. My dad's only complaint was the black beans and rice, which he did not really care for, although he did not give me a reason why.
Katie is a lot more predictable when it comes to guessing what she's going to order. I knew she would be having a chicken entree, and I was proved correct when she went with the Pollo Asado Isla ($19). This chicken was slow roasted and utilized the same excellent garlic mojo sauce that topped the salmon. She loved the tender chicken, but it was the garlic sauce that made her swoon with delight. She called this classic comfort food. The black beans rounded this out nicely.
I came here expecting to get the Bistec Encebollado, but our server really talked up this Lechon Asado ($19) and being a big fan of pork, that's the way I went. This was the best version I have had in OC. The menu description claims that this pork is marinated for two days, and after my first bite, I knew it was true. The pork is roasted wonderfully and topped with more of that garlic mojo sauce that I could not get enough of. I actually liked the black beans and rice. I mixed them together to form a kind of congri. The black beans were full of flavor and really livened up the white rice. The plantains were sweet but subtly, just the way I like them. A very good meal.
Dessert would be our last hurrah at Isla, and I decided on the Tres Leches Cake ($7). This very traditional Cuban dessert failed to impress. I did not mind the moistness of this, as that's what you expect when getting this dessert. I did mind the blandness that each bite brought to my taste buds. A way too mild taste and the frosting did not help out here either. Looking online, we should have maybe gone with the flan instead.
Even with the sandwich snafu at the start of our visit, I left Isla pretty impressed with the food that I experienced on this evening. All three of our entrees and empanadas were great and made me definitely want to come back again soon to try their sandwiches, (before 5 of course), and also try one of their beef dishes. Our server Raymundo handled a difficult situation at the start of our visit as well as could have been expected. No complaints about his service on this evening. Where does Isla rank as far as Cuban food in OC? I'd put them right near the top, if not the best. I'd have to go back to Bella Cuba again to see if it's just as good as it was back when we visited over eight years ago. Yes, it's difficult for us to make it back to a restaurant once we visit, with my ever-growing lists of restaurants I want to experience. I am very grateful for another OC Cuban option that will help satisfy my Cuban food addiction.
Out of five cows, (because the city of La Palma was once named Dairyland, and they have a cow on their city seal to commemorate this), five being best to zero being worst, Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar gets 3.5 cows.
For more information about Isla Cuban Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar, check out their website here: https://www.islacubankitchen.com/