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A Taste of Isla Bonita

Mild by day, Caribbean by night


Diners enjoy their meals among palm trees - SCOTT LARRICK

The corner of Vickers and Academy is like our own Bermuda Triangle for restaurants. One opens, seems to flourish for a time, then mysteriously disappears, never to be heard from again.

The latest endeavor, Isla Bonita, is trying to strike the right balance in the former location of the Wild Mushroom, which replaced the Olive Branch. This is on the northwest corner of the intersection, and the signs heralding "Caribbean food" are hard to miss.

You don't have to worry about an exotic epicurean adventure during the day. The breakfast and lunch menus remain largely the same as they were with the Wild Mushroom, including soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, omelets and that new bastion of breakfast -- skillets. On the plus side, the sweet and tangy lemon bread is still available, studded with blueberries and walnuts and flecked with bits of lemon peel.

The daily soups are made from scratch, and I recently tasted a potato soup as thick as gravy, mild and creamy and sinfully rich, flavored lightly with onion and bacon. The pork burrito was immense, covered by a fresh, tomato-based ranchero sauce that was a bit sweeter than I normally like on a burrito. The strips of pork were tender but had a slight reheated taste. The burrito comes garnished with impeccably fresh lettuce and guacamole (none too spicy), plus sour cream and shredded jack and cheddar. It was a pleasure to note that the burrito wasn't buried under a gooey avalanche of melted cheese, but served with just enough melted over the sauce to add a pleasant contrast to the tomato and pork.

On the minus side, the lunch salads didn't seem very big, although again the vegetables are precisely fresh. The Asian chicken salad provides a bed of greens with only a few noodles, plus green pepper, carrot strips and tender, moist chunks of chicken. The dressing is quite good, light and tangy, not too sweet, with a discernible note of sesame oil adding authenticity.

The dinner hour is when Isla Bonita takes its walk on the wild side, although I'll admit I expected Caribbean food to be a bit spicier. The hot crab, spinach and artichoke dip that I sampled was a far cry from the thick, glutinous paste you get in some chain restaurants. There was a definite flavor of crab, and the dip was sharper and tangier than most other versions, cheesy without being greasy, and just a little spicy. I was very pleased that the artichokes in evidence were chopped into small, manageable bits, not big woody hunks.

The entree menu includes beef, pork, poultry and seafood, and it was so hard to make a decision that I can't wait to go back and try something new. The Carne Frita, although a bit greasy, was a plateful of very tender cubes of pork, sauted with the sweetest, crunchiest onions I've ever had. This was served alongside a mound of smoky, nutty rice flavored with black beans and tiny bits of ham.

The deviled shrimp was the spiciest dish I sampled, with a subtle blending of spices that gradually let the heat come through. The shrimp was sweet and well-prepared, not tough or overly chewy, combined with peppers and onions, and served over fluffy white rice. The same white rice accompanied the Crab Creole, which I was delighted to discover was made with crab and not krab. Again, the seasoning wasn't very hot, and the natural sweetness of the crab could have stood up to a little more heat.

There is dissension among the ranks about the snapper. The person who ordered the snapper thought it was a well- and simply prepared piece of fish. I thought it was certainly cooked well, but I thought it was bland and boring, needing more oomph. And I kicked myself at the end of the meal for not having remembered to order the fried plantains, which are better than potato chips when they're done right.

You simply must save some room for dessert. You can have a nice piece of cherry pie (another holdover from the Wild Mushroom days), and you can get it heated and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Or you can try the flan, which, for the uninitiated, is an egg custard. It seems to me it would make a good base for something to be poured on top of, but maybe I just don't appreciate the subtle delicateness of egg custards.

But the dessert you really must try is the cheese and papaya. The pieces of papaya are cooked a bit and served in their own simple syrup accompanied by chunks of a mild, crumbly white cheese. I know it sounds strange, but together, they produce a flavor and texture that is pure heaven. If you've ever eaten guava paste on jack cheese, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you'll just have to trust me and try this.

I hope Isla Bonita will hit its mark and make a success on that fickle piece of real estate. I also hope the kitchen gets a little more adventurous as more people come to appreciate the Caribbean flair of the food. And I really hope I remember to order plantains when I go back.

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