Isla (Porto Arabia, Pearl-Qatar, Doha)

I went to Isla after reading all of the positive reviews. If you have read my other reviews, you know that I miss Mexican food more than any other cuisine since I moved to the Middle East. Every time I go to Bahrain, I make sure to visit Senor Paco’s at least once, and I wish they would open a location in Doha. I am positively DYING for an authentic Mexican comfort food restaurant.

I was excited when I first heard about Isla. But after I read the menu and laughed out loud at the prices, it took a while for me to give it a shot. But why did I do it? The food is advertised as “Authentic Mexican Comfort Food.” Go to the website if you don’t believe me.

That got me excited, but I do not think it is an accurate description. It is more like “Mexican Haute Cuisine” or “Mexican Comfort Food Reconstructed.” Only a few of the dishes on the menu would ever be found on a family-style Mexican restaurant menu in the form they were offered, and even those seemed to be “reimagined” in some way.

Disappointing for those of us who know what Mexican comfort food tastes like and who want that more than anything in the world. I have eaten Mexican food in every imaginable context, all around the world. I’m talking “tongue tacos at taco trucks on the side of the road in a farming community, no English spoken” sort of authentic. I’m not Mexican, but I KNOW authentic Mexican food. And I’ll tell you what, a taco doesn’t cost USD 7.00 at one of those trucks. Especially not a teensy taco.

That said, I see other reviews noting Richard Sandoval’s self-proclaimed title of “father of modern Mexican food.” Ah, it all makes sense now. Modern Mexican food is by nature innovative. Innovative is by nature NOT “authentic Mexican comfort food.” Otherwise it would not be innovative. Comfort food is comforting for a reason; because it is NOT innovative. It’s what grandma or mama would make. And it would cost HALF of what the father would charge.

But back to the story. We did a survey of the menu, as I like to do. We ordered traditional guacamole, beef nachos, fish tacos, chicken enchiladas, and stuffed churros. The traditional guacamole was awesome, and my favorite part of the experience. Exactly what I was looking for. (But anyone that thinks “pomegranate guacamole” or “crab guacamole” is traditional Mexican comfort food is kidding themselves). That’s about as authentic as “Mexi-shawarma.”

That being said, the chips were stale. Like chewy stale. And this place was busy, it is not like it was slow. I could see the potential in the chips, but they were clearly not fresh. Well, some of them were, about every fourth chip. This tells me they mixed old chips with new chips.

In the humidity of Doha, it should be obvious to anyone who has left a bag of chips open for a while that they will soak up moisture relatively quickly. At QR 60 for an appetizer, this is disappointing. I mean, that’s already over-priced, two or three times what it should cost. Those chips should be PERFECT. Mark out those old chips; at this price you can afford the waste.

Since the guacamole chips were stale, we almost didn’t order the nachos because of it. I persevered, arguing that putting them under the broiler would crisp the chips up again even if they started out stale. The table made a pact to send the nachos back if that did not prove to be the case.

I was right. The nachos were crisp. Well, the ones at the edges were. The ones on the interior were soggy from the toppings. But overall, they were pretty decent. The beans and pico de gallo were a bit watery, and I think this is what contributed to the wet chips in the middle. The beef was tender and flavorful. That all said, I wish there had been more pico de gallo and some sour cream on them, as well as maybe some lettuce and onion. Honestly, I prefer the nachos at Champion’s at QR 55. More and better. These were in no way worth QR 70.

The fish tacos were delicious. I also loved the “taco stand” they were presented on and that they were individually cradled in wax paper. That being said, calling them “tacos” is a bit generous. More like “taco bites,” “tacolets,” “tacotinos,” or “baby tacos.” Honestly, I didn’t even know corn tortillas were made that small. Not even two bites. I could have eaten a whole taco in one bite. No joke, real talk. But I wasn’t trying to show off. Still, it was MAYBE 1.5 bites per taco. Three tiny tacos with some rice and beans for QR 70? In the U.S. I would grumble if I was paying USD 3.50 for a fish taco TWICE this size. So to pay twice as much for half the taco just left me chuckling to myself.

The beans were good. But they weren’t Mexican refried beans. They were runny black beans, closer to something found in Cuban cuisine than Mexican fare. They were good, but I wasn’t at a Cuban restaurant. I was at an “authentic Mexican comfort food” restaurant.

The rice was funny. Why? Because there were peas in the rice. I mean, maybe that would happen at my elementary school on Taco Day, but I have NEVER had peas in my rice at a Mexican restaurant.

But do you know why that is funny? It is because it is probably the most “authentic Mexican comfort food” thing about my experience at Isla. After I got home I Googled “Mexican rice peas,” and found a bunch of recipes that included peas. I’ll admit when I am wrong. This was authentic. I just thought it was funny that this ended up being one of the most authentic parts of the experience, and yet something that everyone at the table had commented on as being NOT authentic.

The enchiladas were odd. There were three on the plate. The tortillas were the size the fish tacos should have been in. The chicken filling was tender and flavorful. The sauce reminded me of mole, and I liked the flavor. But there wasn’t very much of it. The tortillas ended up being dry because there wasn’t enough sauce for them to soak in. The presentation was definitely “modern.” There was crema (thin sour cream) drizzled over them in a zigzag pattern. And they were garnished with pickled onions. Now, I’ve had pickled onions at Turkey Central and it worked. It was good here too, but I wouldn’t call that “Mexican comfort food.”

Again, this was “Mexican comfort food reimagined.” Grandma is turning over in her grave over those enchiladas. Those enchiladas should have been SWIMMING in sauce. Slathered, smothered, covered. Maybe garnished with sour cream. But as it was they were dry.

I liked them more than the rest of the table did. The flavors were there, but the mouth feel was not. And it was QR 65. Back home I would grumble at paying USD 10 for an enchilada combo, which comes with rice and beans. So here I’m paying double that for just the enchiladas (minus the enchilada sauce). Again, I just chuckled to myself.

The churros were also odd. In part because they were dense like a fresh Timbit from Tim Horton’s instead of light and crispy like an elephant ear. But also because they were inconsistent. Two of the three were Timbits, the third was light and crispy like a churro. That said, it tasted good. I liked the cajeta sauce. If I hadn’t thought I would be eating a churro, I would have been satisfied. But these churros weren’t churros. So if you want some churros, go to El Faro.

Overall, the ambiance was great. Plus, the company was exceptional; but you have to supply that on your own. The service was decent. It took a long time for the food to come out. That was true, but that’s more of a kitchen thing than a service thing. Some at the table complained the service was slow and inattentive, but it was fine with me. Every time I needed something it was easy to get someone’s attention.

Food was good. Maybe a 4.0. Some things were great. But when you factor in the price, there was way less value for the money. Maybe a 2.0. That’s why I gave it a 3.0.

We didn’t leave hungry, but then again we paid QR 365 for the meal (two people). I’d come back if the food cost half what they were charging. At this price, I won’t be back without an Entertainer voucher. If money is no object for you, it is worth checking out. If money matters, then I’d wait for a deal.


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