Sometimes, one of the most important assets for a restaurant can be its location.
For Maria Isabel restaurant, its setting is the enviable southern tip of Colon where its outdoor apron of tables not only overlooks the lake, but has become a part of it. Add a loaded bar with a sprawling intimate indoor setting, a “happy hour” and a spacious dance floor (live music on Saturday nights), views that include in a single view both lake and mountains and you have the heart and soul of what makes this location so enduring.
Step inside and you are standing in one of the oldest buildings in the Chapala region. Almost 500 years ago in 1530, it began serving travelers as Ajijic’s first inn. Thanks to the recent owners, Adriana and Leonardo, the building still seems infused with the ancient bon ami and hospitality of that weary wayfarer’s haven. And, of course, dining right on the lake these days is a treat found in fewer and fewer Ajijic venues. Maria Isabel, formerly La Vieja Posada (The Old Inn) is among the exceptions.
The menu is mostly Mexican and, as such, is readily forgiven the “chicken wings.” Starters range over 16 variations, not counting the soups, from a Mexican caviar to guacamole to fish and shrimp ceviche down to a ladder of varying nacho dishes, some of which could serve as entrees.
The menu’s “House Specialties” include a selection of “stone bowls.” These are the venerable molcajetes of Mexican cooking. These are the distinct, hefty bowls carved out of a single piece of coarse basalt. While history records them as pre-Hispanic, they may actually stretch back thousands of years to pre-history (as in stone age). And when used for actual food service, the bowls represent an exotic mesoamerican legacy, providing a fanciful volcanic presence at your table. Also worthy of note among the house specialties are the crepes, done nicely for dinner or for a dessert.
The “stone bowls” of the menu earned our nod for dinner. I ordered the chicken molcajete and my partner, the vegetarian (yes, a bubbling stone bowl of crisp, spiced smoking-hot vegetables). I asked that the chef go easy on the cheese for my little feast, and it came feathered with light cheese crumbles, tender chicken and slices of peppers and onions stewed through complex stone bowl spices.
Maria Isabel is a go-to spot for a lazy afternoon sipping Margaritas and noshing on some nachoes. Or, it’s equally satisfying for indigenous, sunset-lit dinners.
If there were one thing I missed at Maria Isabel’s it would be more swatches of visual and historic interest inside, something equivalent to the authenticity and color of the native menu. Failing that, the service was attentive and friendly. Naturally, after what was an overly abundant dinner (half boxed for home), we strolled along the malecon, a paseo that beckons any time you near Ajijic’s lakefront.