Change from a Twenty: Deb Nies feasts on beautiful tacos and burritos at Las Islas Del Mar in Monona & gives a rave review to the free ceviche appetizer

November 12, 2012

Las Islas Del Mar, billing itself as a “Seafood Mexican Restaurant,” opened October 20 at 5696 Monona Drive. The translation means “the islands of the sea.” In fact, it would be difficult to miss the ocean blue building that formerly housed a Burger King, and later became a Crandall’s location for a few years.

Las Islas Del Mar restaurant in Monona. Photo by Deb Nies

Upon entry, we noticed a small bar/waiting area to our left, a hostess station directly ahead of us, and a dining room of 15 tables to our right. The decor is definitely island and ocean-influenced. Palm trees line the walls, and the table tops are deep blue. The bar area and the dining room each have a large flat screen TV.

We were greeted promptly and asked to see a menu before we requested a table. Since we hadn’t heard anything about this restaurant, my dining companion and I had to check pricing to confirm the ability to get “Change from a Twenty.” We found several intriguing options, and we selected a table. (Note: Don’t sit at Table #4 in the winter unless you enjoy a brisk breeze when customers enter. Another warning about Table 4 – there’s a jukebox overhead.)

Upon seating ourselves, a server inquired about beverages. We asked for water and then set to studying the menu more closely. When she returned she was carrying several dishes, and I was surprised when she set them down upon our table. She explained that it was ceviche, tostadas and crackers, limes, and a green salsa. Because the word “ceviche” meant less than nothing to me, I asked her for more details. (What IS this? What’s in it?) She explained the ceviche, served in a ramekin, as tilapia with lime, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and other secret ingredients. Ceviche is “cooked” in the lime juice.

Since I still didn’t understand completely how this concoction was to be eaten, I asked her to explain some more. (She was very patient.) Our server indicated that some people spread ceviche on a tostada and then top it with some lime juice and/or salsa. Other people choose to just dip tostada pieces into the ceviche. One last question from me was “Is the green salsa hot?” Her reply of, “I’m Mexican…nothing’s hot to me,” made us laugh, but meant we’d have to determine the heat level ourselves.

Free ceviche and tostadas appetizer at Las Islas Del Mar in Monona. Photo by Deb Nies

I have to say I was a bit skeptical of this fish dish due to a previous bad experience with sushi, but I soldiered on and built a ceviche laden tostada. Oh. My. Gosh. Gratis chips and salsa will never again be enough! I could have just eaten the ceviche AS my entire dinner. The consistency is similar to fluffed albacore tuna from a can. The vegetable and herb additions enhanced the light and citrusy flavors. I nibbled from the dish throughout the rest of the meal. (Note: Other ceviche menu items include shrimp and/or octopus.)

My companion and I had a slight issue with the menu, as it is written primarily in Spanish. Although she has taken two semesters of the language, she wasn’t a great help in reading it. She found a taco dinner served with arroz and frijoles though, so she was content. Taco meat choices are asada/steak, pollo/chicken, or al pastor/pork. She chose chicken.

I had a craving for a burrito with steak. While I was able to locate this option, I was surprised and disappointed to discover the burrito was only available ala carte; there was no platter option with the standard sides of rice and beans. The burrito was $4.95 alone, so I added a side of frijoles for an additional $2.45, which seemed extremely overpriced.

While we waited for our meal, my companion enjoyed “reading” Spanish subtitles on the muted dining room TV, while I killed time with the ceviche. She called the ceviche “a tad weird,” but she happily ate tostadas with salsa.

Her lovely taco plate arrived within fifteen minutes, but my burrito did not appear for an additional five minutes. My companion dug in, and pronounced the refried beans as “real” and not from a can. The rice, not the ubiquitous Spanish rice, was a white rice with a couple of peas and carrots. It was lackluster and forgettable. The tacos were freshly created and topped with shredded chicken breast, purple onions and cilantro. The chicken was nicely marinated and cooked just right.

Chicken taco plat at Las Islas Del Mar. Photograph by Deb Nies

When my burrito did arrive, we oohed and aahed over its beauty and heady aroma. The outer layer contained lettuce, guacamole, carrots, and purple cabbage. The inner layer promised delectable chunks of steak and rice. My side of refried beans looked fine, too. Just like my companion said earlier, they seemed authentic.

Steak burrito at Las Islas Del Mar. Photo by Deb Nies.

The steak burrito was so enormous, I took a knife and a fork to cut it into submission. Most of the steak pieces were yummy, but some were charred. Some other unburned bites were gristly beyond my chewing capability. This dish could aspire to be Madison’s perfect steak burrito, if they raise the quality of the asada and use a lighter touch in searing the meat.

Looking back upon the meal, my companion and I lamented we didn’t order seafood dishes. Heck, the proof is in the ceviche… and it’s right there in the restaurant’s title, too. “Las Islas Del Mar – Seafood Mexican Restaurant.” Next time, we’re going back for something from the sea.

Note: The dining room was hopping on a Thursday evening, but the take-out business was even brisker.

Bottom Line: By choosing carefully, and drinking water, it is possible to dine here for less than $20. However, most main dishes average $10-12 per person.

Secret Great Deal Tip: Get the ceviche and tostadas.

Location: 5696 Monona Dr., Madison,

Telephone: (608) 298-7687

Hours: 9:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. on  Sunday- Thursday;  9:30 a.m. until midnight on Friday-Saturday

Website: (Currently under construction)


Receipt Details:
Taco Dinner w/rice and beans = $7.50
Burrito Asada – $4.95
Frijoles side = $2.45
Ceviche/Tostadas/salsa/limes appetizer = FREE
Subtotal = $14.90
Tax = $.82
Total = $15.82

Change from a $20 : $4.28


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