Whimsical, colorful under-the-sea themed murals decorate the walls. The music is loud and the place always seems packed. And the food is a medley of popping pinks, reds and greens, bright with citrus, herbs, sauces and spice.
During two recent visits to the South Omaha location — the owners just opened a second location in West Omaha — I particularly liked their versions of Mexican ceviche and aguachile, where seafood is served with lots of lime and chili, and their fun spins on birria in burritos, tacos and a memorable birria “pizza,” in particular, sized for a crowd.
I was less impressed with their sushi, which while fresh, was all pretty basic, with repetitive flavors and lots of mayo-based sauces and fried elements.
That said, the menu is vast, and I found several dishes that I’d return for.
Probably my top dish of everything we tried is the la torre imperial, a stacked column of fish ceviche; aguachile, cooked and breaded shrimp; octopus, avocado; tomato; red onion; and their house made, thin red sauce poured all around and over the top.
The dish is impressively composed, with a variety of flavor and texture: crispy shrimp with a tempura crunch, acidic fish ceviche with plenty of bright kick and a softer texture and the shimp aguachile, firm and spicy, with a kick from the “chile water” that seasons it with spice, lime and salt.
It’s pretty, and a blast to eat.
I found similar success in another towering dish, the torre poke, which is a poke bowl translated into a pretty stack, with a rice base, a layer of avocado and cucumber, a layer of spicy crab and a layer of acidic, soy-dipped tuna, finished with spoonfuls of fish eggs and a dash of both black and white sesame seeds.
Of the dishes on the sushi menu, it’s easily my favorite. Like the la torre imperial, it’s a wonderful mix of texture and temperature, with some warm elements and some cool, and a nice balance of creamy crunch next to acid and salt.
The rest of the sushi menu is enormous, and I count close to 50 or more rolls, between the special rolls and the regular rolls, plus poke, nigiri, sashimi and the option for several large-format sushi boats.
I tried three rolls — the night we visited, the kitchen was having a buy two, get one free order of sushi rolls, so how could I not?
A lot of the rolls are fried tempura style or coated in sauces, of which there are many, including sweet wasabi, queso, mango sauce, cilantro sauce and sriracha, among others.
I wanted to taste the fish, and be able to judge the quality, so I went for three of the less saucy rolls.
The arcoiris roll — their version of a rainbow roll — comes with crab, cucumber, avocado, salmon, tuna, halibut and cilantro sauce. I also got the primavera roll, made with shrimp, cucumber, avocado, salmon, halibut and a cilantro sriracha sauce; and the Mexican roll, with tuna, hamachi, avocado, jalapeño, cream cheese, cilantro sauce, serrano pepper slices, sriracha sauce and togarashi, which is a spicy topping made of dried peppers.
I’m going to be honest here: When the plate arrived, I had a hard time telling any of the rolls apart. The Mexican roll was obvious, with its jalapeno topper. But the presentation and the look of each one was remarkably similar, and every single one had a dollop of sriracha, whether advertised or not.
The quality of the fish throughout seemed fine, and nothing tasted off. But diners can get this type of sushi at lots and lots of restaurants in Omaha; there is nothing singular here.
Perhaps it was the fault of the cilantro sauce — all three of my rolls had it, I realized later — or those dots of sriracha, but they all tasted remarkably the same. I saw a lot of other diners eating sushi, to be sure, but I saw more people enjoying the menu’s Mexican dishes, and that’s what I’d do from now on, too.
After my visits, I called Jessica Vazquez, who is the general manager at the South Omaha location, and is also in charge of administration and HR for the restaurant. She gave me the backstory of Isla del Mar, which started in 2017 in a tiny spot on 20th street, and almost instantly became incredibly popular, with a line out the door on the regular. A year and a half later, in July 2019, they opened at their current location, near 36th and Q Streets. A few weeks ago, they opened a second location, near 132nd and West Center.
She said while the menus at the two locations are similar, there are some new dishes being tried out at the Center street location.
“We are growing the menu,” she said. “We introduce new things, see what people like and if they like it, we add it to the menu.”
She said the two locations have different clientele: The South location has more Hispanic diners; so far, the West location has more Anglo diners.
One thing that is popular across both locations, though, is birria, and the menu offers several variations. Vazquez said the restaurant started serving birria during the pandemic from a food truck in the parking lot, and it proved so popular they added it to their regular menu.
There’s birria tacos, quesadillas and burritos, all of which have a side of super savory, rich consomme for dipping on the side, and that’s a big part of what makes it so good.
But Isla del Mar has also had some fun with its birria menu, adding birria ramen, birria fries, birria nachos and a birria torta.
We tried to order the burrito ahogado one night, but our waitress steered us away from it, saying it was going to be too spicy. We ordered the burritos grandes instead, which is mild. I’ll note that the menu doesn’t mention either of these being spicy. In fact, they appear exactly alike aside from one difference: the burrito ahogado comes topped with cheese and the consomme, which makes sense, because ahogado translates to “drowned.”
Anyhow. The beef inside the burrito is good, though, tender and flavorful, and the dish comes packed with beans and rice and plenty of cilantro. The consomme is wonderfully layered, the broth full of spices.
Our favorite of the birria list that we tried is the enormous birria “pizza,” which is sort of like a giant quesadilla stuffed full of beef, sliced into wedges, topped with a wide drizzle of sour cream and a side of consomme and served searing hot. It’s enormous, enough for at least four people and perhaps six, and we took home plenty of leftovers.
Cocktails at Isla del Mar are enormous and eye-catching: Matthew tried a large red beer one night, topped with several shrimp, spiced peanuts and a smoky-sweet Tamarind and tajin stick. I tried both the classic and some of the flavored margaritas, and all are solid.
I like Isla del Mar, and I can see why it’s so popular. For a restaurant with such a large menu, it does a lot well, and most of what I tried, I would return for. Omaha doesn’t have many restaurants focused on Mexican seafood; the selections here are worth sampling.