Friday, December 22, 2017

Las 7 Estrellas

I have been all but criminally neglecting this Mexican restaurant review journal, and for that I sincerely apologize, as I have been traveling, writing speeches for a potential 2020 candidate for political office, and selling T-shirts. It occurred to me to expand the Avocado Taco nationwide—and I did write about some fine tacos in my Moleskine notebook (I've always been skeptical of those things, but they're really pretty nice—got one as a present) (and if you happen to see some guy in a taco restaurant with a laptop, that isn't Ray Speen)—but I decided to keep it somewhat local, for now, and it seems I'm back in town for a spell, at least until my court date. 

An acquaintance in the food world, Dick Skiller, woke me up last week with a desperate plea to meet him at a new Mexican restaurant. It seems he can't speak any Spanish—well, neither can I, unless you include counting off a Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs song. But no matter, I wasn't even fully awake anyway, so I joined him at Las 7 Estrellas, 112 E. Dakota St., in Bay View, and I had one of my favorite breakfasts, Huevos con Chorizo, which reminded me somewhat of my regular order at the old (gone now) Lopez Bakery, on National, where I started the day a record number of times. They brought warm tortilla chips automatically along with a standard salsa and some green stuff that was warm and spicy—it probably had a name—didn't think to ask—so for now, I'll just call it delicious.

Skiller had a plate of three tacos (three different kinds, including cow head), though he ate one of them before I could photograph it. After we were both finished eating, we were sad we didn't share each other's food, so we could each get a more representative overview, but we both agreed we'd return here soon, anyway. I know Skiller likes to eat at a place several times before reviewing it, and since he has an expense account (unlike me), why not simultaneously claim to have standards while sticking it to the man. The decor is modest yet comfortable. There's a TV, but it's behind the bar, so from the dining room you could only see the bottom of it, and since it was a football game, that meant just the players' legs were showing, which was too bad, or nice, because I was thinking this was the annual game where both teams wear papier-mache animal heads. I would have mentioned this to Skiller, but he already accused me of being high. I was not.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Taco Bell - UWM Student Union

As many of you know, my excuse for not fulfilling my obligations lately has been that I have gone back to school; but the neglect I feel worst about is the project to experience and rank all of the places to get tacos and Mexican food in the Milwaukee area. We have recently hired some help at my website venture so this should free some time up for my ongoing taco explorations. One place I have had the (dis)pleasure of darkening the door of (there are no doors here, just metal gates) was the UWM Student Union (2200 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee) Taco Bell, which my fellow students are all familiar with either as a passion, last ditch to escape hunger, or wide arc to escape its stench.

I recently listened to a podcast that was discussing chain restaurants, and they went on and on about their love for Taco Bell. I thought for a while they were joking (they are comedians, after all) but it seems they were serious and did actually have an affinity for the "food" served at this most common and unavoidable manufacturer of the North American fast food taco experience. I think it had to do with the nostalgia of being young with the car keys, and eating something cheap while drunk. I even admit to having devoured a few 7-Eleven microwave bean burritos in my time. But anyway, they went so far as to claim the dislike for Taco Bell was elitist, which I just have to disagree. But still, I thought I'd return (being on campus and all) after all these years and give it fair trial. I was even very hungry on this day.

Maybe it was wrong of me to try to go the slightly "healthy" route, but as they only offer flour tortillas for tacos (which I hate with a passion) I thought I'd get a taco salad. At least it was cheap! But it really reminded me of nothing so much as someone throwing up in their salad, and then eating it. I was starving, and ate it, and it did have that kind of hangover food appeal. The whole experience, the black plastic plate, the plastic fork, the packets of hot sauce, the little bag of chips, and the dining area in the student union (you've all been to student unions - they are both grim and wonderful) - it made me feel a little like I was in high school again, with the whole world of higher standards out ahead of me. Maybe it's fitting, in trying to revive with blog and taco dining project, to start at the bottom and then work our way south.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

El Beso

I've been passing by El Beso (full name: El Beso Mexican Restaurante & Cantina – 5030 S. 74th Street, Greenfield, WI) on my way to Half Price Books for years now, wrongly assuming that its larger-than-life presence in the middle of that shopping center parking lot necessarily means something negative about its quality. Of course, I should know better. When if comes to Mexican restaurants, it really holds true that you can't judge a book by its cover (that is true with all restaurants, of course—I mean, that you can't make assumptions by superficial viewings of the exterior—or even the dining areas—and it's even more true with Mexican restaurants, where often the quality of food seems to follow no logic whatsoever).

I came here in the middle of the afternoon on a summer Monday, expecting it to be as empty and echoey as weekday morning church, but it was bustling, happening, groups of a dozen, the fajitas sizzling and the Margaritas pouring freely. As big as the place looks outside, it feels even bigger inside, like you just took a magical trip to old Las Vegas, and you could get lost trying to find the bathroom, so ask. There's a giant bar, and some high tables, which places always try to seat you at when you're alone, but I hate those high tables and I've taken to requesting to sit anywhere else. They gladly seated me at a booth, and it was perfect. I had a view of the main dining room, and groups who looked like they were having office outings, or retirement parties, who knows. It's so crazy-looking in there, and dark, you do forget you're in a strip mall parking lot for awhile, and that's the point.

I ordered from the lunch menu, which is quite reasonable (the way to go here, if you're on a 2 taco sized budget, like me)—I got a couple of pork tacos with avocado, onions, and cilantro, and rice and beans, all for $10. A giant bowl of chips when I came in, and some very tasty salsa, and it was more than I could eat. I didn't realize it—until I looked at the picture I took of my plate-o-food—but I was bathed in some kind of blue light, I suppose neon. When I used to drink, I would love to find the darkest bar possible on the brightest summer day, and kind of hide out from the sun. You can get that same feeling here, but of course it's not a bar. Even if the drinking that happens here likely rivals most bars in sheer quantity.

Later I looked at the El Beso website—and it's really pretty extensive, and actually helpful. A lot of restaurants either have no website, or have one that looks like it's fulfilling a night-school requirement. The menu part is kind of overwhelming. It makes me want to go back there sometime and try some more specialities. They even have an entire gluten-free section of the website, and on the restaurant menu there are GF indicators. I rarely ever get dessert, ever since I've been more conscious of my mortality, but this one dessert listed here would be a suitable “last meal.” It's called Platanos Machos, and it's described as: “Fried plantains with vanilla ice cream, topped with strawberries, condensed milk, chocolate, caramel, and whipped cream.” Bon appetit, RIP.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pico's Tacos & Cerveza

Even though I'm limiting this blog to restaurants in the Milwaukee area, and Pico's is in Racine, it's north of Racine (550 3 Mile Road, Racine, WI) and close enough to Milwaukee that I could ride my bike there, and so might you be able to. It's worth the little bit out of the way jaunt, too, as the food—at least what I ate on this initial visit—Barbacoa taco—was delicious.

I know that it seems like there is very little difference from place to place, sometimes, when you're just eating this taco and that taco, rice and beans. Chips and salsa. But all the different variations of salsa is fascinating in itself. I could just focus on salsa, here, and have endless stuff to write about. Also, take rice and beans. Kind of the same everywhere, right? Not at all, of course. I'm kind of obsessed with Mexican restaurant refried beans, actually, the subtle differences in the beans from place to place. Some—to me, anyway—rise to the level of gourmet cuisine. Anyway, all this is to say, you might pass by this little joint, it doesn't look like much, it's small and modest, but the food here is first rate, really good. It's really something when you chance on to a place you've never seen before and discover excellence.

Los Paisa

I know that it's ridiculous for me to review a place I've already reviewed when there are 200 Mexican restaurants in the Milwaukee area I haven't even eaten at yet, but until I get my funding and can buy a car I'm going to be limited somewhat by geography, not to mention circumstances. I'm eventually going to return to places I like, anyway, and if I have something else to say about a restaurant, why not? Los Paisa is technically in Bayside (600 W. Brown Deer Rd.), but it's one of my favorite places to eat, as they have a kind of eclectic and varied menu. 

On this visit I tried a vegetable enchilada with white corn-based sauce, which was delicious and very different than the usual enchilada. I want to try everything on their menu, eventually. My original idea about picking one Mexican dish as a kind of standard and getting that in each place I visit, that's kind of a dumb idea. I mean, it's an OK idea, kind of a fun notion, but realistically, each place has things they specialize in and are sometimes known for, and it only makes sense to try what looks most special, rather than limiting myself to avocado tacos, only. 

Another odd thing about Los Paisa is that it's in a strange, chateau-style house, and there is a bar in he basement. The one that used to be there seems to have closed or changed its name, and now there is something that seems more Tequila oriented, anyway, though it's going to be like never by the time I ever get around to going to a bar in the evening in Bayside. But that's just another wrinkle in the quirkiness of this place, along with the Mexican folk art decor. Also, the men's room is fantastic - it's warm, cheery, well-ventilated with a window, painted red, and decorated with paintings of Mexican wrestlers. This is the kind of thing that really makes my day. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

La Fuente - Bluemound Road

This is one of three (I believe—I'm going by their menu) La Fuente's, located at 9155 W. Bluemound Rd., in Milwaukee, out by the zoo, in what's informally known as the "Cat's Head" neighborhood, because if you look at it on a map the street layout forms what looks like a giant cat head. You could do worse than to live out there in one of those round apartment buildings with this place as your neighborhood too-tired-to-cook spot.

The sign out front is mysterious, because it is pretty much a large "M" with "La Fuente" draped over it. What does the M stand for? As this restaurant was formerly Frank Monreal's El Matador, one might assume the M is leftover from the old sign and could stand for either Monreal, Matador, or both. Or perhaps, as this area is kind of the western gateway to Milwaukee, perhaps it's just that. Or maybe it stands for Mexican food, that would make plenty of sense. Or Margaritas, something they sell plenty of here. But if you look closely you'll notice it's also an upside-down "W" more than it is an "M"—which could mean Wisconsin, or maybe something more mysterious like the "Big W" in that Mad Mad World movie, where the treasure is buried! Now before anyone goes digging holes in the parking lot, I want to insist that the treasure here is a warm, welcoming restaurant with some hearty, large portion, tasty Mexican food.

La Fuente is an enormous establishment, and on this one visit I didn't take in even a fraction of its capacity, but I think you can schedule ridiculously large groups here. What the place really reminds me of more than anything, in its decor and size, is a classic supper club. I'm not sure if under the "supper club" definition, Mexican restaurants are ever included, but I'm going to insist, now, that this place fits pretty much all criteria of supper club: large capacity, quality food at affordable prices, traditional cuisine (in this case traditional Mexican cuisine) (but in this case also including dramatic, sizzling dishes like fajitas), live music entertainment, copious alcoholic beverages, lots of kind of nutty older people dining there, including those from the Cat's Head neighborhood and also from far beyond.

On this visit I enjoyed two steak tacos with generous, ripe and not musty, slices of avocado. Very fine tacos. Along with the usual rice and beans. But here, something struck me about these refried beans, was it just me, or were they somehow more delicious than any refried beans I'd ever eaten? Nothing unusual about them, it's just that they were perfectly what you'd expect, but somehow just that little bit more tasty—I'm not sure why. Maybe it was a bit more lard than usual, or maybe something in the seasoning, or the beans themselves, but these beans rose to a level of gourmet, for me, on this day, and I can't stop thinking about them. Which makes me think they know how to cook at this place, in large capacity, but also at a high quality level, and makes me want to go back and try more of the menu, and just kind of hang out with the kind of nutty people, like myself, dining there.

Friday, June 23, 2017

First Watch - Mequon, Wisconsin

First Watch "The Daytime Cafe" (as opposed to... what?) is a small chain restaurant - I say small because I don't think there are that many - but they're not all local - some are in other states. Anyway, this one is pretty far north, but still biking distance from Milwaukee, so I'm including it. It's in a shopping center on N. Port Washington Road, near Mequon Rd. and I-43 - which is the kind of suburban service asshole of the world location you'd expect to find nothing to eat besides the uninspiring usual. Actual address is: 11032 N Port Washington Rd, Mequon, WI 53092, and they're open, last I checked, seven days, but on the early side, 7AM until 2:30PM - so for your early risers! When you see it looking all generic and boring in this shopping plaza you might either cringe or just not notice it - so in that sense this place is a real find, because I've eaten here a couple of times and the food was exceptional each time. It also feels much more like the classic kind of "family restaurant" environment (which, with the demise of diners, is the best you can hope for, many places) than a chain restaurant.

As far as I'm concerned a taco is always a welcome sight (but not for long, unless my stomach has eyes)! On this rainy morning I could not be any happier eating breakfast tacos with egg and chorizo with generous avocado and a side of decent black beans. I was just looking at their website for the exact name of this dish and the price, but I found their website confusing and maddening. Why do restaurants traditionally have such terrible websites? I think this is changing, now, hopefully, but it's driven me nuts for years. What is so hard about keeping your website up to date, and even more important, clearly and prominently displaying the address and hours of operation? Well, you know - restaurants - it's often quite a mystery what goes on behind those closed doors (and often the open ones)! The address and hours of operation I've listed, above, are taken from Yelp - so hopefully those were posted by someone anal about accuracy (as opposed to anal about service). The service at the First Watch, by the way, has been, on my few visits, top-notch.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Cafe Corazon - Bay View

I'll keep this brief because the Bay View location of Cafe Corazon (2394 S. Kinnickinnic Ave, Bay View, WI) is relatively new and has much the same menu—as far as I can tell without getting clinical about it—as the Riverwest location—and I'll probably be visiting again soon. I've eaten here only a few times since they opened over a year ago, and everything was good, from the food to the service to the feeling of the two rooms in this comfortable storefront. It seems like they're doing everything right, so until there is a backlash (that gets back to me), a scandal, or some new obsessive area of scrutiny that I can't rest without sharing, I've got nothing bad to say about this place.

On this visit I had "Taco Truck Taco Plate"—you can't go wrong there—delicious, good price. I'm a simple person—pretty much you can put anything on a corn tortilla, and as long as there's cilantro and onion, I've just had the best meal of my life (up to that point). I suppose if I must find a downside to this place it's just that, being located in the south half of Milwaukee, it's in close proximity to a staggering number of restaurants serving Mexican food, some with very little internet of advertising presence. It has thus far been a failing of this blog to even scratch the surface of the sheer number and variety of Mexican food options. But that's something that will change, as long as our funding comes through. And certainly no criticism of Cafe Corazon, because as far as I'm concerned, you can't have too many places to eat tacos! (I'll sometimes eat tacos two or three times a day, if you include at home, believe it or else!) It's no secret that Mexican food is R.Speen's favorite, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; it can be the must comforting of comfort food, and the most adventuresome adventure. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Los Paisa

Los Paisa is one of my happiest discoveries in recent years - it's a Mexican restaurant I could have easily never set foot in if it wasn't for this project (writing about Mexican restaurants) as it is so far north - located at 600 W. Brown Deer Rd. in Bayside - it's almost out of my jurisdiction - indeed, bordering on BF Canada. It has long been my habit it ride my bike up here to the car-dominated corner of Port Washington and Brown Deer Roads for the inexpensive breakfast at Maxfield's Pancake House, or if was later, lunch at a Pho place, now sadly gone. One day I was late for breakfast so I explored a little, and on the one corner of the four not dominated by shopping plazas, sat this odd little structure looking like the Chateau from Hell. It is confusing, because it shares the stone and tile-roofed house with a bar called the Speakeasy (which is in the basement) and there is nothing in appearance (other than the small sign that says "Los Paisa") that suggests Mexican restaurant. Upon closer inspection, of course, it's quite obvious, but getting close to it requires you to cross these suburban nightmare arterial roads that are among humans' most shameful inventions.

But I did, and now I've returned a half dozen times or so, and will return again because the menu is diverse and extensive, the food tastes like home cooking, it's inexpensive, the service is good, and the decor is among my favorite of places I've visited on this journey, with an ever changing salon-style smorgasbord of Mexican folk art - the good, the bad, and the weird. I could easily just populate a review with images from the dining room, but I'm going to stick with not getting too picture crazy here.

The dining room features a large interior window which I first took for a mirror, until I noticed that it didn't show my reflection, and not thinking I'd turned into a vampire anytime recently, I figured out that it's actually a window to the Speakeasy below, which wasn't open at lunchtime, thus dark. I'm curious what it will be like to dine here in the evening with Speakeasy open. (People watching, anyone?) As far as I know, it might be a real speakeasy, and calling it that is a brilliant strategy to fool the G-Men.

On this visit I tried Manolos Tacos, which are blackened chicken and avocado and "special sauce" - noted on the menu as "Bam-Bam Style," which, until I take the time to do the proper research, I will gringo-ignorantly assume means: delicious. This is an automatic chips and salsa to the table place, but the salsa includes also a ramekin  of hot bean dip, so good that we finished two of them before ordering. I suggested we just get one more of these then announce we are only getting cokes, after all (just kidding!) This is a place worth ordering Guacamole because they prepare it at your table with fresh ingredients, and if they're out of avocados, no guacamole - which is infinitely better than settling for the canned stuff which comes across as green mayonnaise. OK, I did look up Bam-Bam style, and assuming it doesn't refer to the Flintstones rugrat, the Milwaukee band, or the Thai rapper, I need to do more research.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

BelAir Cantina - Downer

Located at 2625 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee, this is one of, I believe, five BelAir Cantina's now open, expanding faster than my taco budget, and you have to ask the hard question, how many is too many for a local chain? One answer could be, "Can't have too many taco restaurants,"—fair enough—and I think the important thing is that each place have its individual personality, to some degree, rather than each being a cookie-cutter version of each other. This seems to be their approach, at least as far as the spaces go, I guess I'll look forward to checking out all of them. It took me awhile to make it here, actually, because I'm often not in a mood for crowds, and based on my experiences with their original location, in the distant past, on taco Tuesday hipster nights when it's like the Columbus zoo in there, I passed by this Downer Ave. location many times, not feeling like waiting, based on the appearance outside with the sidewalk dining chaos. I'm over there on Downer a lot too, it's a great neighborhood, with an old arthouse theater, some fine local restaurants, an actual independent bookstore, a local grocery store, a hardware store, and a couple of chain establishments where you can stop and pee without buying anything, including a Starbucks that has great employees. It's a great neighborhood, and my only complaint is there is a LOT of empty storefront space, which usually indicates that the greedhead landlords are holding out for the big money a gross place like Applebee's would bring.

So when I finally steeled myself enough to face the crowd on a late brunchtime Sunday, I was pleased to find out the bulk of the masses were congregated outside and there was an enormous, comfortable dining room with plenty of elbow room, and they didn't act like I was a weirdo to spend a couple hours in there, writing, eating, calling a few friends to join me. They were also serving the brunch menu until 3pm I believe, and I ordered breakfast (I love when I can get breakfast all day)—Huevos Rancheros, which was not the best I've ever had, but miles and decades from the worst, and I ate it all, ate too much, was satisfied, and pretty all around happy.

Here is a photo from where I was sitting, you can get an idea of the expanse of this place, very nice feeling in there, breathing room. I kept wondering what it said in the wall, there, however, what word or words preceded "go if you go" and what it all meant. I intended to check on my way out, forgot to, so now I have an excuse to return, not that I need one. There was also at least one surfboard hanging on the wall, maybe more. It took me awhile to figure out the spelling—BelAir (capital B, capital A, no space between)—and I'm not even sure, but it's like that on their website. They make a point of their California influences, which is an honorable approach to Mexican cuisine (it's fine to be authentic to a region of Mexico, or someone's mom's home cooking, or SoCal, or SF, or New Mexico, or Tucson, or TexMex, or Rick Bayless, or _______taco, or foodtruck, cart, or horseback—it's all legitimate approaches as far as I'm concerned, and the bottom line is it delicious). I always liked the name Bel Air, even though it's an LA neighborhood where rich people live (and no doubt other places I'm not aware of)—it's kind of got an old-fashioned vibe to it, like you'd expect to find some eccentrics there, stuck in the past. I'll look forward to visiting all locations of this place, even the ones in BF Cheeseville, and see what tastebuds and braincells get liberated.