The sounds of salsa pulse through Isla Verde, whose giant front windows have been flung wide open to the warm spring night. As a breeze travels in from the cafe patio with the glow of the setting sun, the silhouette of an enormous dancing man whirls in perfect syncopation across the frame.
We could easily be sitting in a high-style lounge near Old San Juan, listening to the background rhythm of lapping waves. But then the man turns, and the sun glints off the green eagle on his cap. Suddenly, Cousins Supermarket comes into view - the unofficial pantry of North Philly's Tamale Belt. Fringed with barbed wire and a weedy vacant lot, this corner of American and Lehigh is an unlikely spot to discover a trendy lounge such as Isla Verde.
With a sleek dining room trimmed with sheer golden curtains, a color-shifting neon ceiling, and a dozen plasma TVs blinking from the lounge in the rear, Isla Verde could be a hot spot in South Beach. The modish white platters of Nuevo Latino ceviche and plantain-crusted seafood turned out by the promising young chef, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, would be at home in any Center City bistro.
But Isla Verde is definitely something new for the barrio, where menus lean toward home cooking and the decor goes heavy on travel-agency posters. Owner Reinaldo Pastrana - who built the strip mall Plaza Americana, where Isla sits - thinks the time is right for an upscale anchor to the neighborhood's rebirth.
Judging from the crisply pressed business diners coming in from the nearby hospitals and Temple, and the exuberant waves of stiletto-heeled dancers who swirl across the dance floor to a live band on Saturday nights, Pastrana has tapped a niche waiting to be discovered.
The biggest find here, though, may be Rodriguez, who, at only 23, is just old enough to buy one of the killer mojitos that Isla serves in frosted pint glasses brimming with mint and rum (the ultimate cure for your dancing inhibitions).
Rodriguez, who came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico five years ago, earned a culinary degree from the Art Institute of Philadelphia before stints on the line at Alma de Cuba and in banquets at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. His early menu at the four-month-old Isla is more an homage to those previous stops than a distinct personal vision, but technically, he carries them off with skill.
The ceviches are wonderfully colorful and refreshing, and come with homemade plantain chips that are good for scooping. Morsels of halibut bathe in coconut milk tingling with Thai chiles. Plump shrimps curl beneath a sweet and tangy tomato puree infused with roasted jalapeand peppers. Superbly tender octopus takes on a Mediterranean mood with kalamata olives and roasted peppers. Sweet little bay scallops get a Hawaiian look with a gingery hoisin glaze moistened with pineapple juice.
There are some gems among the cooked appetizers, too. Chicken choclo brings four tiny tacos made from fried malanga (a.k.a. taro) chips filled with chicken and corn stewed in a mild tomato gravy. The bocadillos de pescado are meaty morsels of marlin marinated in rum and evaporated milk, then fried in a perfectly crisp cornmeal crust.
Camarones a la Marisol were an excellent take on tempura-fried shrimp, streaked with bright green cilantro mojo and red pepper aiolis - but it was the batter, tweaked with starchy root and the tang of salt cod, that gave it gusto.
I also liked shrimp Causa, the giant butterflied shrimps that cradled a ball of Maryland crabcake, which is a dish Rodriguez learned at the Bellevue. But it was one of several items that seemed awkwardly out of place on a menu that gets its best moves from Latino inspirations.
The brick oven produces a nice homemade flatbread (not unlike an Indian naan), but the repertoire of pizzas was completely off-base, with undercooked crusts and heavy toppings. And the occasional Italian entree also subverted the kitchen's credibility by completely ignoring the classic preparation it purported to be. I actually liked the fried roulade of veal stuffed with prosciutto and mushrooms in blush cream sauce. But it wasn't even remotely veal saltimbocca.
Rodriguez doesn't hesitate to fiddle with many of the classic Latin dishes, either, but these are more convincing. A little extra refinement turns his black bean soup into one of the best I've ever eaten. The dark stew gains extra depth from a base of smoked ham hock, but it's the relish on the side - a salsa-esque dish of tomatoes and bacon - that sparks the beans with a lively rhythm of smoke and crunch.
The thick and juicy center-cut pork chop with corn and jalapeojo is a solid upgrade over the thin and leathery little chops typically sold elsewhere as "chuletas." The textbook rebosado - pounded cube steak that is egg-battered and fried - had an addictively garlicky savor and an herby lime-and-cilantro mojo that made it impossible to stop eating.
A couple of entrees didn't quite soar. The plantain-crusted scallops were too thickly breaded. The ropa vieja had a fabulous flavor, but the slow-stewed flank steak had the off texture of a chopped Philly steak rather than the usual pulled shreds. The tamarind-guava barbecue sauce that comes with both the braised beef ribs at dinner and the pork entree at lunch was numbingly oversweet.
For the most part, though, Rodriguez hit his mark. A special 20-ounce porterhouse steak was thick and impressively full of zesty flavor. At $25 considerably more expensive than most of the sub-$20 menu, it was still a pretty fair deal.
Likewise for the handful of high-end lobster-tail entrees. These may exist on the menu only for mambo kings bent on seducing their salsa queens with luxury, but they were actually quite nicely done - a pair of Maine tails baked to sweet perfection over a brandy sauce spiced with chorizo ($27); or a solo tinged with garlic and posed atop a thick slice of citrus-crusted mahi mahi.
A friendly but understaffed service team and some uninspired desserts remain noticeable weaknesses for this newcomer. No self-respecting restaurant near the Centro de Oro - be it viejo or nuevo - should serve a flan so rubbery it bounces off the spoon.
But these are merely quibbles. It shouldn't be long before this promising new spot becomes a charted destination, not just an unexpected discovery.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.