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Omaha Magazine

Sinaloa To Sushi: Isla Del Mar Serves up Mariscos Frescos and Maritime Vibes

Apr 29, 2021 03:46PM ● By Josefina Loza
Cantaritos with fresh citrus slices

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

After record-breaking Nebraska cold temperatures, and amid a pandemic, the closest my family could get to oceanfront views was from the tall wooden booth at Isla del Mar Seafood Restaurant.

The Sinaloan cuisine eatery, sandwiched in a popular area at 36th and Leavenworth streets, is one we’ve passed a dozen of times. Nearly every time, the car park was full, which is a good indication that the dishes Ismara Gonzalez serves inside are desirable. On a sunshine-filled Friday, we stopped in just after the lunch rush. 

Gonzalez opened the restaurant nearly four years ago on south 20th Street, later relocating to its current location. Isla del Mar, which translated means Sea Island, boasts 10,000 square feet of space and facades of island life that this tropical dreamer so desperately sought.  

Let’s be honest, this light-skinned Latina writer is no stranger to Caribbean views, escaping twice a year to the Florida Keys and elsewhere. The beautiful nautical murals and beach décor of oars, small buoys, and deep-sea life instantly set an oceanic mood that whets the appetite. 

An extensive menu offering heartier fare for the colder months was on deck, but the fresh seafood and exceptional sushi bar are the highlights for locals and regular patrons. 

Sinaloan cuisine is known for its diversity of flavors, colors, and textures. Aguachile is the Mexican state of Sinaloa’s spicy signature dish, consisting of fresh shrimp, cucumber, and red onion bathed in a chili-and-lime infused sauce, giving the dish its name.   

 With all the service woes restaurateurs have faced during this COVID-19 crisis, we could not have felt safer eating here. The staff was attentive and polite. Glasses were never empty; tables are wiped between patrons, and clean silverware is swapped out.

For entrées, one special that caught my eye was El Molcajete Frío, an aguachile shrimp stew of sorts, cooked in lime juices with octopus, cucumbers, red onions, and special house sauce. In case you are not familiar, a molcajete is a granite mortar and pestle. Sometimes in local Mexican restaurants they are used to serve guacamole or queso fundido. 

Although the Molcajete Frío portion size was enough to feed two people, my special request to make the dish extra spicy—eyeballs-boiling-in-their-sockets hot—was not honored. However, the overall flavor was a delight, as the citrus and red onions made the oversized shrimp pop.

My tweens were elated to see their California sushi rolls arrive in bento boxes. Not only were the portions large, the sides they ordered from the kid’s menu were divine: jalapeño poppers, onion and shrimp tempura, edamame, fried asparagus, and crispy mango. While a California roll is pretty basic (sushi crab, avocado, cucumber), it was a tasty treat for the kiddos. Isla del Mar’s sushi was flavorful and the pieces seemed to hold together as my littles straddled the sushi with their chopsticks.

 After speaking with regular patrons, who scoffed at our basic sushi selection, we realized we should have tried one or two of the specialty rolls. For instance, the Hulk is made of sushi crab, cream cheese, avocado, eel sauce, and spicy mayonnaise, and the Aztec roll consists of sushi crab, cream cheese, jalapeño, and rice, fried in the house special breading and served with eel sauce.

Omaha diner Crystal Murillo is a fan of the restaurant’s shrimp ceviche and both the Hulk and Aztec specialty sushi rolls. She frequents the eatery twice a month with her mother and sisters. 

“I think their [offerings are] really delicious overall,” she said. “The sushi they have is unique.”

The beverage program is just as strong, with cocktail classics such as mojitos and bloody Marys and Mexican classics micheladas and cantaritos. 

Patron Reyna Moreno made special note of the cocktail menu. “Their drinks are unique, too.” 

Take the following showstopping alcoholic “beverages” that could make any foodie salivate, from their Super Michelada—think bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka—to their grander specialties, including El Torito, a Michelada with two beers served with shrimp ceviche, fish ceviche, cooked shrimp, and a shrimp-and-octopus aguachile. Then there’s the El Trio, which includes three beers served with shrimp, dried shrimp, beef jerky, and clams. 

These wild twists are sure to set typical beer lovers’ taste buds dancing.

“I might not be the best person to ask on their dishes, as the only thing I will eat there is their ceviche de camarón [shrimp],” Moreno said. “I don’t like seafood of any kind, but surprisingly…I love it. So, that’s what I eat every time I go there.”

My friend who dined with us was impressed with his entree, the Tacos de Marlin. They caught his taste buds with an unfamiliar flavor combination—smoked marlin with pico de gallo, serrano pepper, and cheese served with rice, lettuce, onions, cucumber, tomato, and avocado. There’s a sense of satisfaction when, after one bite, you know you ordered the right thing.

The restaurant has lots of space, from the bar to the dining room—definitely a plus during these socially distanced days. “I like that it’s so spacious,” Lucia Marquez, a regular patron said. “The distance makes it easier to enjoy your meal and outing.”

Overall, the food presentation is spectacular, the seafood is fresh, and portions are generous, so my advice is to arrive hungry. And next time, I’ll take Queen Bey’s advice and keep hot sauce in my bag. 

Visit facebook.com/islamarrestaurante for more information.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.