The Hours: Happy Hour is offered daily from 4 until 6 p.m.
The Interior: In the world of southeast Gilbert, chains dominate the scene. It was exciting to hear of a new locally owned Mexican concept popping up in the area, off Val Vista Drive and Williams Field Road. Inside, Isabel's Amor combines feminine flourishes with rustic sensibilities. Isabel's succeeds where a lot of other Phoenix spots fail -- transforming a bare strip mall template into an inviting restaurant. Take a seat at the purple-based bar, under the silver tiles, to try out the happy hour specials.
The Food: During happy hour, $5 appetizers rule the menu. This would seem like a deal if two of them weren't already $5 and three more are regularly priced at $6. We started with the nachos, adding carne asada ($3 extra). While the classic single-serving presentation proved to help us keep our fingers cleaner, the nachos were near toppingless. The modest amount of cheese, bland refried beans, tomatoes, and a few pickled jalapeños made for an unsatisfying nacho experience, though the carne asada was delicious, flavorful, and well-prepared on its own. The pico de avocado, which is just their way of saying guacamole, is pretty much identical to what you'd find at most other Mexican joints in town around this price point, but it does help out the nachos if you dollop it on top.
Against our instincts, which would've led us to the jicama fresca salad with watermelon and jalapeño or even the elote, we followed the menu's suggestion to get the "must-have house specialty" frijoles de amor. We weren't wowed by the beans on the nachos, but we hoped the jalapeño cream cheese would help on this dish. Unfortunately, despite cute plating in a cast iron skillet, it was just as bland, with little to no spice or even salt to speak of. We don't want to disparage the past of the family who owns Isabel's Amor's, but it seems going from their chain of fast food restaurants, Someburros, to casual dining didn't quite make the leap.
The Drink: With a tequila-centric cocktail program created by mixologist Travis Nass of Last Drop Bar, the drinks on Isabel's menu look inventive, flavorful and exciting. Plus at $6 a pop during happy hour, it's easy to justify sampling a couple of these craft concoctions, although there are also $4 draft beers during happy hour. We started with the ambitious Lychee Rose cocktail with tequila, lychee liqueur, rose syrup and lime. The rose syrup gives the cocktail a perfumey floral smell, while the cocktail itself is mostly just sweet and tart. The blackberry sage margarita definitely had a lot of blackberry flavor with little sage notes to speak of, while the Yellowbird--a combination of rum, Galliano, Solerno and lime -- had a strong, spirit-forward punch. Overall, the drinks were crafted with a lot of imagination, but executed with little balance, making one component on each overshadow the other aspects.
The Conclusion: With some under-seasoned appetizers and overpowering cocktails, we weren't as impressed with Isabel's Amor as we expected we would be. Nothing we ordered was bad by any means, but everything could have used some fine-tuning. This doesn't condemn Isabel's Amor, but we do hope they get it together in the months to come.