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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Guanajuato

Guanajuato Mexican Restaurant in Bay View is at 2317 S. Howell Ave., but more significantly it's close enough to the corner for me to call it "on the corner" of Howell and Lincoln, pretty much the east end of Lincoln, and if you don't know, Lincoln has just an incredible amount of Mexican restaurants along it - so many I have not ever been able to count them - as it stretches from Lake Michigan to Waukesha. Okay, so maybe there are more on another street, like National, but if you're looking for Mexican food you can't go wrong driving along Lincoln, and at one point I considered just doing a blog about tacos on Lincoln, called "Tacos on Lincoln," but decided to expand it to anywhere serving anything remotely Mexican in the greater Milwaukee area. Maybe a narrower focus would have been more conducive for success of this long-neglected project, but that's all water under the bridge, now, or something.

If you were going to start on the east end of Lincoln and head west systematically, this would be number one, and it's a good place to start because it's in a lot of ways very typical of Mexican restaurants in the greater Milwaukee area, based on the menu, the food, the decor, and that it's a beloved spot for many; if you interviewed Milwaukee, or specifically Bay View residents, you'd find a lot of them claiming this as their favorite. I like it a lot, myself, and I've eaten here countless times and never had a bad experience or anything less than a delicious meal. It's got a bar with a lot of goofy decor, and indeed oceans of tequila help keep the ship afloat, I'm sure, and the food fairly inexpensive, especially if you're going pound for pound. The people who work here are among the warmest in this sometimes cold, cold town, and there is heat in many other forms here, including the swinging kitchen doors with windows shaped like chili peppers.


On my last visit I decided to try different dishes than I'd eaten before, then neglected to take notes so I don't remember much about it (this is a constant problem with me) except that it was all delicious and I kept my membership to the "clean plate club" in spite of generous portions, including rice and beans. One thing I do recall eating was a tongue taco, and that would be beef tongue, I believe, which every so often I try to come around to, but am never in love with. I'm not crazy about meat, in general, and tongue gets just a little specific. Maybe I should go back to my original idea of just trying to order avocado, cilantro, onion, and lime tacos at each place and doing a head to head comparison. I kind of abandoned that narrow approach, however, as different places have their own specialties, and you'd be doing yourself (and the reading public) a disservice to ignore that. Not to mention that I also want to explore the basic enchilada, as much as possible, in order to re-frame the idealistic memory of my childhood crush, lowly Taco Flats in Cleveland, just for nostalgia's sake.

So ultimately I feel like I have more work to do here, at Guanajuato, but don't pity me, it's a rigorous job but someone has to do it. I'll return with more data, insights, and better notes at a later date. That's another decision I made about this project, I'm going to say it's okay to return to a place multiple times, and certainly not worry if I write about one place several times before I've covered every place in the greater Milwaukee area to eat Mexican food (a task, which, you might realize, may be impossible for a single digestive system). I may even post some memorial thoughts and laments for some of the fine establishments that are no longer with us, a few new casualties which have come to my attention just recently, tragically, really. But to my eyes (you never know, of course) this place is in great health and is going to keep on making people happy, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit today or sooner, because life is short and restaurant/eater relationships are even shorter.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cafe Corazon - Riverwest

Cafe Corazon - Riverwest (the distinction must be made because there is a Cafe Corazon in Bay View now) - is at 3129 N. Bremen Street, in a very cool old building that I had some dealings in, in the past - so now, seeing it completely transformed into something else is both pleasant and disturbing. I wonder if there is a word or term for that, when a building you are used to seeing as one thing gets turned into something else? Let me try to think of one: how about Brain Map Renovation. No, that's weird, plus I think that's a band. I'll keep thinking. Anyway, I was saying nearly 20 years ago that if I could start a business I'd open a burrito place in the Riverwest neighborhood, because there wasn't one, and it'd be a sure success, even someplace at Taco Hell level (and I don't even eat burritos). There is just a certain ratio of how many burritos you can sell in relation to how many bars, hipsters, and college students are in the vicinity, and based on that, this neighborhood could support about 1000 burrito places!

The good news is, this place opened, and it has good quality food, is delicious, they renovated the space nicely, the wait staff it great, out back is a bike path and a glimmer of nature, and it's not going away (hopefully). The only downside is, if you come here at certain times (like Taco Tuesday, Thaco Thursday, right before the Brain Map Renovation show, etc.) it's the Philadelphia Zoo. So choose your visiting hours wisely.


As usual, I forgot to photograph my food until I took a breath and was halfway through. I was excited to see Migas on the menu, since I have a particularly warm spot in my heart for that dish ever since I ate migas regularly at this place - oh, was it Kokomo, or Iowa City (you'd think I'd remember) - anyway, which was particularly delicious because it was made with homemade tortillas. This migas wasn't quite as good, but that's not fair, since, you know, nothing can compare to your first kiss, your first beer, your first six figure publishing contract. This was, however, delicious. But this seems like a good place to bring this up: nothing can compare with really tasty homemade tortillas, but they are a pain in the ass to make. Well, maybe not for the experts, but a lot harder than taking them out of a package. But it's worth it! Also, yes, this was from the breakfast menu, and I was thrilled to see that breakfast is served until really late (I think 3pm? Should have wrote that down). Anyway, the best breakfast is Mexican restaurant breakfast, it's great when it's served late. After all, hardly anyone in this neighborhood gets up before noon!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Qdoba

This Qdoba at 1150 N.Water Street, Milwaukee, in the heart of Water Street bar hell may technically be the closest taco joint to Stately Wayne Manor so I felt an obligation to check it out and soon, even though I consider it a fast food chain and generally stay far away from fast food chains—though eventually I'm going to have to drag myself to a Taco Hell. As usual, entering these places I feel alienated, like I don't know the procedure, where do you order, what do you do, and the sign boards are so caught up in trying to be graphic design-y cool and kind of insiderish, even, it's not comforting in the least... it's assumed that you're young, and you've been coming here since high school and know the drill.

But fortunately for me, a guy working here was really helpful and actually very nice, helped me figure out how to order tacos, which I did, and it all went smoothly. I got a couple (new thing?) brisket tacos, with habanero sauce, so from one of those or both you're getting some smoke flavor, and as we all know (for whatever reason) nothing is as delicious as smoke. So it was a couple decent, tasty tacos, I was happy. The corn tortilla was not the best but I was just happy they had corn tortillas at all, as most gringos get flour tortillas. Plus, I got a Fanta soda, orange, which, because it's “Mexican” soda, made with sugar instead of corn syrup, I guess... but it cost $2.30! What is that? But I guess we're in a time in history now where a bottled beer at a bar cost $7 (which is INSANE to me) so maybe $2.30 for a nostalgic soda at a fast food place is reasonable?

Sitting at the usual, hard, cold, oversized, not fit for human fast food booth I looked around and was kind of appalled with the décor, the graphics, the signage, and the music (popular, top 40ish crap)—even the view out the window was of hideous Water Street and the human puke-trough of a bar strip. But the worst thing was this plastic sign thing on the table—you know those, so they can switch in and out the latest ads for themselves—and it was for the brisket meat I was eating, and suggesting a “pairing” with sweet iced tea... in itself not a bad idea... what the fuck, “pairing?” Does McDonald's now suggest PAIRING a cheeseburger with milkshake? Well, I guess if you're expecting your everyday world to keep getting more surreal, this does not disappoint.


The last thing I was thinking was how much money they must spend on paying design people for every last horrible detail of places like this, from the sound to the colors, to the ugly mismatched fonts and uncomfortable seating, to the “ideas” of how to make a fast food place try to justify your overpriced fast food dollars. But the most important thing here (even more than the food, though the food needs to be okay and not make you ill) is the people working, almost more so than a place with proper table waitstaff, the counter workers are really pretty much everything in a place like this. I used to not think so much about it, but that IS the experience, it's the human interaction. And you know they're not being paid well. Places like this should really concentrate on this aspect of the experience, not the horrible graphic design which looks basically the same everywhere. They should be emphasizing the costumer experience part that is based on the interaction with employees, and they should be paying everyone much, much more, accordingly.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Vagabond

Starting off my closest-to-furthest from S. Wayne Manor Quest (estimated, I'm not so anal as to use a map and compass) brought me to Vagabond, 1122 N. Edison St., Milwaukee (former location of Rudy's, and probably some drowned in my own vomit place before that, but that's pre-history, and it's been fully remodeled, I think).


Now, I appreciate a $2 taco Thursday and Tuesday as much as the next guy, but it's kind of annoying that only a select few of the tacos on the menu honor this deal, but I ordered three—three different kinds of meat—and endured the music. In my time of dinner, I didn't hear one song I liked, but I did ask my phone for the names of a couple of the artists who particularly made me feel like I was being held to the ground by hairy arms while someone pissed in one ear. Chet Faker (not his real name, of course) and High School Art Class (evoking memories of covering balloons with nasty papier-mache). The tacos were not helped by the nasty papier-mache memory, especially with the white drizzle on one of them that made me glad there was no possible way the chef and I had any kind of history.


The entire front of the restaurant is decked out with hundreds, maybe thousands of old speakers and a DJ setup, though the music was no doubt, at this point coming from a microchip and invisible speakers. The chips, the waitress informed me, are fried in the same oil as wheat items (in reference to my gluten-free concerns) which is nice to hear (that they're fresh) but sad about the wheat (for me, anyway, though it's attentive of the waitress). The tacos are too busy, not unlike having a gutted half-Winnebago as a bar. I'm trying to draw a parallel between the overdone décor and overdone tacos, but I just don't care enough to write this more elegantly. I prefer when tacos don't have so many ingredients that their flavor is more confused than complex, and also fall apart. On the other hand, they were pretty tasty, and that's why Ms. Fork invented the fork, I suppose. How many ingredients should go in a taco, though, ultimately? And what is the ideal ingredient to tortilla ratio? I almost got the “gluten-free” enchiladas, but the waitress looked into the enchilada covering mole, and found it actually wasn't gluten-free. Ultimately, great waitress, pretty good tacos, overwhelming in a bad way décor, and crap music. But then, this place is essentially a Water Street bar, or almost, and I don't set foot into any other places on Water Street, Milwaukee, so what was I really expecting?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Taco News Monthly

Just so no one gets too excited, this will probably not be a monthly feature; ie, I'm promising nothing now that the months run away like Wild Turkey over the gills... however, you never know. Sad to see the closing of La Perla (734 S. 5th St.) which has been around since before I realized Milwaukee wasn't a fictional construct; sorry I didn't make it over yesterday for the free tequila, but then, no two words ever spelled trouble more surely than "free tequila."

Because: 1) it's summer, 2) the roads are being torn out and being replaced by... more roads, 3) I don't have a driver's license, anyway, 4) I don't have a car, either, 5) I can't get a date (who has a car), not even for a taco date, and 6) I'm a total nerd who likes structured projects: I am embarking on an odyssey to systematically explore the Milwaukee taco landscape on foot, based on strict geographical proximity from my home in Stately Wayne Manor on the East Side. (Please note: just because I live in Stately Wayne Manor, which is, yes, a mansion, doesn't mean I have money to burn, and in fact, due to some unsound investments and even less sound work habits, am only able to continue to exist in my opulent home because of a grandfather clause too confusing to really understand, along with the relentlessness of a shark, and a lust for tacos that is unparalleled metaphorically. But it doesn't mean I have bottomless pockets, or can hire a chauffeur, afford Uber, or lend you money.)

So, what this is: I'm visiting, once a week or so, any place that will make a taco, one after another, in a strict order based on the distance from my home, Stately Wayne Manor (and if you think you might be the first one to make jokes about "The Batcave" or "Alfred the Butler," rest assured, you aren't). Anyway, I have already hit the first spot, which was only a handful of blocks away, review coming up! And by the time I reach the site of the now gone La Perla, the Margarita vomit will have dried, and I'll humbly pay my respects.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cloud Red

Not a 1950s communist paranoia B-movie but a new tavern taking over an old tavern space on Oakland, near Kensington, in Shorewood. Cloud Red (4488 N. Oakland Ave.) is not strictly a Mexican restaurant, and it's primarily a bar, but it seems that they may consistently serve some type of Mexican related food on their revolving menu. On my first visit I got the impression that the kitchen was inquisitive and somewhat innovative. Alas, I don't live in the heart of Milwaukee's south side Mexican restaurant paradise, but rather north of downtown, and when I walk or bike somewhere it's preferably to the north (avoiding the soul numbing parking lots and faceless offices downtown and the hellish strip of trash filled empty lots south of the Third Ward that have to be traversed to get to the south side). Unfortunately, the neighborhoods to he north, in spite of a university, are culinarily (not to mention racially) un-diverse. It's not so easy to find a taco in Shorewood, sometimes. Still, it's a beautiful area with lots of red-winged blackbirds, apparently, after which this bar is named.

Since I quit drinking, soon to follow was to quit hanging out in bars, but still I like the idea of bars as gathering places, especially when there are positive vibes and something else to do besides drink, like mini-bowling or eating. I feel like this place could be a fine hangout for someone who wants to be among people occasionally, so I may return and see what else the kitchen comes up with. I tried a hefty shrimp taco which was very good, though awkwardly priced at $6; for me, one is too little, and two maybe too much. But the real landmark decision here was the bravery I summoned (without drinking!) to order an appetizer called "Amaizeballs."


Now, I have to say... I have un-friended people just for using the expression "amaze-balls" (even once)—but in this instance, the "maize" pun, and the opportunity (with no small amount of trepidation) to order this dish by name, won me over, momentarily. The gluten-free, panko covered, deep-fried, hominy balls, while edible, were not delicious, and a bit mushy and gross, lacking a variety of texture or flavor, and that white stuff didn't help. But I ate them, I didn't hurl, and I was able to Snapchat all my friends pictures, "Look! I'm eating Amaizeballs!" It was quite a day. But, however, in the future—and I will go back to the place, no doubt—or me, yeah, tacos.