Beni Velazquez’s Two New Desert Shores Restaurants Vary in Quality

Republic Café & Kitchen trumps Isabela's Seafood, Tapas & Grill

Chef Benny from Republic | Photo by Jon Estrada

Chef Benny from Republic | Photo by Jon Estrada

Ambition is a good quality in a chef. But I’ve also seen many chefs take on too much at once, with unimpressive results. That’s what I’m worried may have happened with Beni Velazquez, the former chef for Arts District hot spot Bar+Bistro.

Velazquez announced last year that he was opening a pair of adjacent restaurants on Lake Jacqueline in the Desert Shores community. Republic Café & Kitchen is a breakfast and lunch spot specializing in high-end coffee and tea. His more formal restaurant, Latin Fish, opened very briefly, serving Spanish and South American tapas. It quickly shuttered, however, and was rebranded Isabela’s Seafood, Tapas & Grill. Now, with the two restaurants operating, Velazquez tells me he’s also planning a pizza place in the complex. Unfortunately, while Republic is a quaint little spot with very good food and service, Isabela’s still hasn’t found its footing, and could use a lot more work before the chef takes on something new.

The decision to close Latin Fish so quickly was reportedly based on many factors, including trademark issues with the name and an elderly clientele that wasn’t receptive to the descriptions of the food. So the chef used the downtime to rewrite the menu in a way that presented his style of cooking in a more approachable way. Not having dined at Latin Fish during its brief lifespan, I’m not qualified to comment on how much has changed. But I do know that most of the food I’ve had at Isabela’s does not live up to what Velazquez did at Bar+Bistro. In fact, everything seemed to have at least one major flaw.

Paella | Photo by Jon Estrada

Paella | Photo by Jon Estrada

The garlic chicken, for example, had dry white meat segments and a sauce that was more sweet than garlicky. Then there was an order of Honduran Fire & Ice Lobster that reminded me of the contents of a cold lobster roll simply plopped in the middle of a bowl of sweet coconut curry that lacked any of the hints of jalapeño and ginger the menu promised. And while a trio of crab cakes was tasty, they were far too mushy in texture.

The best dish I’ve sampled at Isabela’s so far has been a paella loaded with seafood. But even that lacked socarrat—the crisp rice crust from the bottom of the pan. That’s probably because the chef didn’t completely reduce the liquid, offering something closer to broth with rice and seafood than a proper paella. Service at Isabela’s was also disappointing, with dishes taking too long to arrive, and my waitress completely forgetting to place one of my orders.

Fortunately, Republic did a much better job at impressing me with both food and service. The café occupies what was the bar/patio area during the restaurant complex’s previous life as Garfield’s. It specializes in Peet’s coffee and tea, with preparations that include espresso, café Cubano, cappuccino and café Americano. Breakfast options include lox and bagels, egg sandwiches (with or without chorizo), fresh preserves and a side of Cuban toast. For lunch, the chef whips up a nice variety of soup and sandwiches.

French toast at Republic | Photo by Jon Estrada

French toast at Republic | Photo by Jon Estrada

The standout dish for me is the flan French toast, which is one of the best breakfast dishes I’ve had in a very long time. Velazquez starts by soaking thick pieces of toast in flan custard. He then pan-sears them before baking them in the oven. That second cooking process causes the custard to cook within the bread. It’s kind of like an éclair in which the filling has become part of the pastry itself, and it’s absolutely amazing! Agave-infused maple syrup makes it even better.

For lunch, the chef’s sandwiches are nearly as creative. He puts an Italian spin on a Cubano by using panini bread, then spices it up with house-made pickles and mustard mojo mayo. And while I found the turkey loaf sliders a bit dry, they were very well seasoned.

Republic demonstrates that Velazquez still has what it takes. I just hope he works out the kinks at Isabela’s before taking on that third spot.

Al’s Menu Picks

  • Flan French toast ($6.50)
  • paella Velazquez ($14–$25)
  • and Cubano panini ($8.95)

Isabela’s Seafood,Tapas & Grill and Republic Café & Kitchen

2620 Regatta Dr., 702-925-8333, Republic is open for breakfast and lunch 8:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon-Sat. Isabela’s is open for lunch 11–3 p.m. Tue–Sat; dinner 4:30–9:30 p.m. Tue–Thu, 4:30–10 p.m. Fri–Sat; and brunch 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun. Dinner for two, $40–$60.


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