Editor’s Note: After changing its focus to Peruvian fare in December 2016, Isla closed down in May 2017.
Austinites are familiar with the Warehouse District’s Péché, a distinct absinthe bar on 4th Street that celebrates pre-Prohibition era cocktails and French cuisine made with fresh, local ingredients. Owner Rob Pate emphasizes education and intimacy within the space, cultivating an atmosphere that encourages friendly rapport between bartenders and patrons.
But if you’re searching for a lively evening with friends, Peche’s sister bar will deliver. Directly next door to Péché, Isla is a vivacious Caribbean cantina. The same executive chef, John Lichtenberger, and pastry chef, Yolanda Diaz, serve simple but impacting flavor combinations.
From Absinthe to Caribbean Island Rum
Isla opened in March 2015 and has since garnered critical acclaim for its rum cocktails, brunch, tacos, ceviche and colorful atmosphere.
The walls display vintage artwork with Cuban roots and tall palm tree wallpaper ascending to the ceiling. The turquoise booths, and coral and electric lime-colored seating, pair with staff in tropical-themed attire to give the place a campy feel without being overbearing.
Isla is island-inspired in the middle of Texas and therefore in a category of its own. On Monday evenings, there is a weekly lotería game that begins at 7 p.m. It’s free to enter and there are prizes to be won from sponsors such as Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Cruzan Rum.
Rum is the star of the liquor menu here. Flights feature dozens of kinds of rum representing the span of Caribbean islands where, along with Latin America as a whole, most of the rum brands are produced.
“Aside from being a Caribbean cantina, Isla is also a rum bar. Dark spirits have always been my favorite and rum was one that I thought was always overlooked,” commented owner Rob Pate. A “rum map” exists so you can chart the origin of each brand of rum and the price of each, along with learning facts about the value of rum throughout the centuries.
Tequila, Vodka, Gin Cocktails Pack Bold Flavors
Brightly colored tropical cocktails at Isla not only include rum, but also host gin, tequila and vodka, topped with fanciful umbrellas to give the impression of a vacation retreat.
Popular rum cocktails include (Goodie Goodie) Rumdrop, a brunch favorite, with white rum, honey rum, blood orange and ginger. Painkiller hosts navy rum, pineapple and coconut cream over ice.
For tequila enthusiasts, Cantina Mule is a satisfactory take on the classic tequila-based beverage with blanco tequila, lime, simple, jalapeño and ginger beer. On the spicier end, Fresca provides a kick with reposado tequila, solerno, lime, agave, cucumber and chili lime salt.
Try Isla’s Ceviche, Tacos and Johnny Cakes
In terms of food, the team’s idea is to keep the menu simple with pops of color and spice weaving across the featured items, bringing “simplistic Caribbean food done well.”
A well-established brunch option is Johnny Cakes & Shrimp. The johnny cakes feature crumbled bacon and habañero honey to provide a balance of spicy, sweet and savory. The goat fundido, another fan favorite, couples queso with roasted goat chorizo and added goat cheese for a a delicious, pungent appetizer.
The menu mainstays are ceviche and taco options like fried chicken, octopus and pork belly bahn mi, to name a few. The Ceviche Trio is your best option, shared among friends, as it enables indecisive customers the chance to try the red snapper with flavors of chili and mango, the marlin with astringent red onions and the varying chef’s special. All dishes are soaked in lime juice and served with fresh, warm chips within a trio plate platter. The owner recommends the ceviche, grilled or raw oysters, and a “good, aged Dominican rum.”
Desserts include standard but delicious tangy key lime pie and pineapple upside down cake with toasted coconut sorbet and rum dulce de leche with a rum 151 flame.
Isla is Austin’s premiere tiki-themed bar where you can give free reign to rum and tequila (responsibly) with a date or a group of friends. Cool down from the blazing summer heat with an umbrella-topped drink in hand and savory ceviche.
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Where do you unwind with tropical cocktails?
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