Picked A Peck Of Painful Peppers or Asian Con Fusion
On a hot tip from a good friend, we decided to check out Isabel’s Cantina in Pacific Beach. The menu describes itself as Asian Fusion which, subsequently, is my favorite kind of fusion. It would be more fun, and delightfully accurate, if they just described Isabel as your half-Asian, half-Hispanic grandmother who lives in a dojo down on the beach, about a half hour away from Mexico. Sure, she’s a bit confused and the whole thing seems kind of surreal but, man, can she cook up a great meal.
The building is hard to miss – simply look for the alarmingly large dragon hovering just above the carved entryway. This is completely out of place in the Pacific Beach neighborhood where Asian usually means Panda Express or a handful of run-of-the-mill sushi joints. Of course, appearances are never to be trusted. The decor projects a hacky Asian aesthetic while the majority of the menu seems to be inspired by Latin dishes. However, what you may call carnitas, the next bum may call spicy pork. Does it matter? Not if it tastes great.
If the dragon on the building wasn’t enough, the Zen garden inside, complete with temple bar and miniature arched bridge, really made this place look like a mishmash of different Asian restaurants. Upon entering, you should probably start to pray. Save your mantras, this isn’t for the giant Buddha statue in the corner – this is praying that you will get seated quickly and not have to cram yourself inside the small, awkward waiting space. Sure, you could stand by outside - but those seats were probably already taken and it doesn’t do too much good on a cold and rainy day. Upon seating, you’ll find your utensils wrapped lovingly inside of a brown, ruffled paper napkin that may well have been picked up at a local gas station. Time to indulge.
Servers careen through the cafeteria-style dining room at breakneck speed. Since you're seated at crotch level, the speed at which servers dispatch themselves throughout the narrow aisles might be a bit unnerving. Fear not, as these are experts of the highest caliber who know which way to cautiously sway their hips, and also exactly when you need attending to. I honestly can’t remember a single time during the meal where I was rendered helpless by thirst; both my water and my orange juice were filled up at every opportunity - putting myself in an optimistic state of mind for the rest of the meal.
I eventually settled on the Jalapeño Scramble, which sounded moderately healthy and had a bit of everything. It arrived deconstructed. As a result, I spent the first few minutes picking along the perimeter of my plate; delicately mixing the pieces together with the homemade salsa and bits of egg whites. Lying in wait within this innocent bed of egg whites was a few frighteningly ripe jalapeños. With my mind busy wrapping around the number of combinations I could make between eggs, brown rice, black beans, and the array of vegetables, I had completely forgotten about the poignant, green peppers which gave the dish its name. I scraped up my next bit of the scramble, spicy peppers included, and speedily shoveled the scoop of food into my mouth.
While the divine taste of my next bite definitely made for an ethereal moment, these jalapeños were hot. Very hot. So hot that my mind became clouded in a fog, the restaurants pseud temple interior made even less sense than before. I heard the whispers of dead kings who had fallen to this dish in the past. A veritable atomic bomb had been dropped onto my tongue and it made me writhe and tear up like a little boy. I couldn't give up now. The meal was too delicious. I developed a taste for the spice after a few bites. It’s the ones you don’t see coming that always hurt the worst. My lady took a smarter path, ordering the Avocado Scramble. It was nearly identical, but with more avocado and potatoes and less true warrior spirit.
Isabel will not be forced to commit seppuku in her beachside dojo anytime soon. This restaurant does a respectable job of harmoniously blending Asian nuances with Latin flavors in tasty dishes that won’t put you at risk for a heart attack. Ingredients are fresh and local, and each plate seems convincingly healthy compared to an average meal out. The Isabel brand has several different restaurants on the West Coast, lighting up on both San Diego and Portland area maps. While Isabels was not what I expected, but it was a pleasant surprise which made us eager to try out their other local eateries.