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Las Islas Marias: Where Eating Fish Is The Only Option

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 22, 2006 3:59PM

2006_02_lasislamaria3.jpgVenture to the Southwest side enough and one will find that Mexican restaurants pop up like the ragweed we’ll be pulling from sidewalk cracks come spring; some of those serve food that doesn’t taste much better. And so it was that Chicagoist’s Bridgeport Bureau Chief found himself hopping on the Orange Line Monday, camera in tow, to find one that stood out. Luckily we didn’t have to go farther than Las Islas Marias at 5401 S. Pulaski (773-767-0908). With its giant rooftop lobster- along with the Frankel Eye Care “giant Indian with bad eyesight”- protecting the West Lawn neighborhood from the dual menace of Godzilla and Mothra, it was the only place that stood out among the strip malls and lunch buffets.

2006_02_lasislamaria10.jpgNamed after the three Mexican islands located south of Mazatlan (the largest of which, Maria Madre, is home to a prison community), this restaurant chain is the subject of a long, spirited discussion on the Little Three Happiness restaurant forums for both its campy decor and its food. The interior of the West Lawn location is painted in bold seascape colors with risqué artwork and natural wood highlights. At each location customers are greeted with a giant banner that reads “Bienvenidos a su vitaminas.” The literal translation: “welcome to your vitamins.” This slogan, possibly crafted by a punch-drunk bantamweight fighter with a fragile command of his native tongue, is a reference to the health benefits of Las Islas Marias’ culinary emphasis: solamente mariscos y pesce.

“Only shellfish and fish.” If your tastes in Mexican food run toward chimichangas, chicken, carnitas, or any of the food porn Rick Bayless cooks up every week on Channel 11, you are out of luck at Las Islas Marias. The only other times we’ve seen this much seafood on a menu it’s been wrapped in rice and seaweed. A quick glance at Las Islas Marias’ menu revealed all kinds of soups, entrees, fish platters, oysters, clams, and a curious cocktail teeming with seafood called “Vuelve a la Vida”, which means “Return to Life.” This is supposed to be one hell of a hangover cure. You can either have that or any of the standard selection of Mexican beers served alone or as a michelada. Las Islas Marias' menu also makes a sweet alternative to that old lenten standby, the pepper-and-egg sandwich.

2006_02_lasislamaria6.jpgOur meal began with a variation of the complimentary serving of chips and salsa. Our waitress brought to the table a plate of tostadas, saltine crackers, a salsa verde with a heat index so potent it can clear any kind of blockage (no chlorine-laced Pepsi needed), and a small bowl of shrimp ceviche. This ceviche veered from the norm in that in addition to lime juice the fish was coated in a cream that had the texture of mayonnaise. Although the few bites we ate tasted great, our concern about raw fish left out in the open swimming in mayonnaise superceded our desire to lick the bowl clean. So we ordered some pico de gallo as an alternative.

2006_02_lasislamaria13.jpgFor our entrée we ordered the camarones rancheros: shrimp grilled in a mélange of spices and tomato sauce, served with rice and a fresh salad. The shrimp was perfectly grilled and peeled, with a soft texture and just the right amount of snap to the flesh to really sink our teeth in. The spices on the shrimp built to a head of steam as we cleaned the plate. Spread onto tostadas with a small dollop of the pico de gallo really sent this dish over the top for us. By the end of our meal our mouth was so aflame that we had to order a second bottle of Dos Equis to quench the burn, pleasant as it was.

Despite our reservations with the ceviche, Las Islas Marias is a restaurant we’ll be frequenting again in the near future. With five locations throughout the city it should be easy to make our way to one. The other locations are
4770 W. Grand (773-637-8233), 2142 N. Milwaukee (773-489-2410), 2400 S. Pulaski (773-522-1300), and 6635 N. Clark (773-973-4752).