I was born and lived in San Francisco until I was 8 years old. During my childhood Caribbean restaurants were far and between. Caribbean culture in general was mostly hidden from public view.
Most food media was limited back then as well since it was the 1990s and media did not have the multicultural voices of today. My exposure to Caribbean cuisine growing up was mostly from home cooking until we moved to Florida where it thrives.
Now that I am back in San Francisco I see a number of restaurants taking root in the direction of this food and I welcome it.
Today I decided to check out Isla Vida (Island Life) after finishing an article about The International Cuban Sandwich Festival and making myself crave a Cuban nearly 3,000 miles from home. Isla Vida has a Miami-like vibe to its interior with floral features (without the house music) although there is still room for growth in the interior. It has only been around for a few months.
The menu is fairly simple with Cuban and Jamaican influences and Isla Vida proudly refers to itself as Afro-Caribbean. The signature items are the smoked chicken and sandwiches as well as the Guava BBQ Ribs.
The restaurant is fast-casual but feels similar to a sit-down restaurant. If it was in South Florida, there would be a DJ inside spinning music, but the playlist was pretty enjoyable regardless.
Chef and Co-Owner, Jay Foster, and Co-Owner, Matthew Washington, are one of the only black business owners in the Fillmore which is a historically black neighborhood once called “Harlem of the West”, according to KQED.
There are many recent cases of chefs and restaurateurs moving into specific neighborhoods throughout the country and world with a mission to enrich them with history and culture in the last few years, a renaissance of a past when immigrants and minority groups formed powerful neighborhoods filled with music, art, and food. Food is a powerful way to create change. That is the San Francisco I remember as a kid.
I went for the Cuban Sandwich or Cubano ($13) as they call it. The Cuban Sandwich is originally from Tampa so I wanted to compare and contrast how people in San Francisco are enjoying their Cubans compared to my home city.
The Cuban Sandwich at Isla Vida comes with oven-roasted and wood-fired pork, ham, manchego, mustard, and a pickle on bread and comes with a helping of mixed greens, dressing, and shoestring fries.
The first thing I noticed is that the sandwich does not have salami. Salami is included in a traditional Cuban in Tampa due to influences from Italian immigrants that goes back to the 1800s and a is a foundation of the sandwich. Although I did find myself missing my salami, I was quite happy with the additions added by the chef.
The second thing I noticed is the swap of dijon mustard which is something that might have people from Tampa fuming, but for me the dijon mustard worked really with the smoked pork stacked on top of the sandwich. The swap of Swiss cheese for Manchego wasn’t noticeable in my opinion due to the bold flavors throughout the sandwich.
I admit that I am much more open-minded than some of my fellow diners in the East Coast who expect their roots to be maintained exactly that way, but to me food is always evolving and chefs should be respected for taking risks and rewarded when it works well.
One of the biggest differences is the addition smoked pork. Isla Vida is not the first place to use smoked pork in the country, however restaurants in Tampa move towards pulled pork as a topping on their Cuban. The smoked pork really worked on Isla Vida’s Cuban and it has a very unique and flavorful finish that is perfect when you hit the aftertaste of ham, mustard, and crunchy bread as you take each bite.
The only thing I would add is more ham to the sandwich to better balance the smoked pork, it is great but personally I would add more ham to taste it more.
The smoked pork almost made me want Guava BBQ sauce on my sandwich, but I feel I would have completely betrayed my sandwich and roots if I fully entertained that so I ruled against it.
The portion size was generous. I could have easily have split the sandwich with someone and ordered some more sides, but I hardly can ever finish a Cuban in general. Your mileage may vary. The salad and fries were plentiful.
I would like to try the tostones and maduros in someday to see how they line up to my experiences. Isla Vida is also offering brunch and I am interested in giving that a shot in the future as well.
Hopefully they also add some cocktails in the future as that would be a major add. I also found myself craving a Cafe con Leche with my sandwich and I think it would be a powerful addition to the menu if done right.
I will return to Isla Vida in the future for more food and am happy to recommend it as a former judge to the International Cuban Sandwich Festival.
Restaurant Name: Isla Vida
Cuisine: Caribbean, Cuban, Jamaican
Address: 1325 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone Number: (415) 678-5171