From Odd Duck to Lazy Susan, Goodkind to Vanguard, to the re-saddled Palomino, many of the big-deal restaurant openings in Bay View over the past few years have mostly kept a pork-bellied hue of New-All-American focus. The Chopped-flavor idea being that you can take some of this, a bit of that, and make it your own. Even Hue is “Vietnamese inspired” rather than, you know, Vietnamese. And Centraal, what with the burgers and Bloody’s, is really only Belgian in beer list form.
But now we have news that team Odd Duck will be bringing Middle Eastern fare to the much-maligned corner of Howell and Lincoln. Corazon, meanwhile, which many champion for its “authentic” take on Mexican, is making people forget Hector’s one burrito at a time. And now we have C-viche (2165 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-800-7329), which, despite the awkward dash and connotations of pretension that might indicate, seems very much intent on forays into legit ethnic cooking. After all, it has traditional Peruvian beef heart, and a smattering of ceviche’s and plantains, and something called “huacatay” sauce. We stopped in recently with hungry hopes ranging between La Merenda, and something, maybe, completely unknown.
The space: Every time we hear about a new business venture on KK, be it restaurant, bar, or otherwise, there is a desperate hope said joint will take over one of the commercial corridor’s far too many eyesore vacant buildings. Yet, like every other time: nope! It’s just what used to be another salon. But that’s no blame of owners Karlos Soriano, a native of Peru, and Paco Villar, a native of Mexico City, who rightly found a perfect, if simple, room for a cozy and spicy upscale neighborhood restaurant and bar. Despite a lack of advertising or flashy sign work, we found it rather loud even late on a recent Thursday, implying conviviality that was followed by a welcoming “my friend,” conversational menu presentation, and knowing helpfulness that lasted throughout the evening.
Milwaukee Record’s food: So appropriately, yes, there is heart. Or rather, there is “Corazon de vaca”—cow’s heart. Such a bold order may rightly require some courage, though, and for that, there are Pisco Sours ($10). The frothy national drink of Peru, Pisco—a sort of South American wine-country brandy—is mixed with lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and angostura bitters, for a liquid starter that proved sweet, Crest-fresh-feeling, strong, and dangerously drinkable. There was even some type of latte art drizzle happening, lasting all the way to the bottom. Servers’ shirts openly asked, “Got Pisco?” And even though the sticker price seemed a smidge high, it was one of the few “housemade” cocktails in recent memory we could endorse as heartily as the proprietor.
It was a beachy opener for a ceviche foray, starting with the “Classic” ($14). Here, vaguely termed “delicate fish” proved to be flounder, and despite our reservations about an unwillingness for specificity, it really could have been poisonous blowfish. Such is the nature of the sauce that even some chewiness, or the generic wedge of lettuce underneath, or the unappealing hulk of sweet potato in the face of a diner with personal disdain for all things sweet potato, couldn’t detract. The “leche de tigre” is made from lime juice, some more lime juice, yellow chili pepper, garlic, ginger, herbs, and then probably an extra spurt of lime juice. It is tingly, piquant, aggressively acidic, and with the red onion punch on top, impossible to stop slurping. Peruvian corn fills out the plate with big crunchy kernels of earthy contrast.
By this point we were heartened enough for a stab at “Anticuchos” ($9). Quick history: these are traditional Peruvian grilled street-cart snacks, with roots back in at least the 16th century, and classically made with beef heart. (Before that, they were made with llama, which would probably require even more alcohol to order.) More importantly and presently, here we have two wood skewers, two chunks apiece, which really come on rather like thin strips of skirt steak, maybe like a Mexican arrachera, with a sizzly char, a perfect medium rare redness, juicy and pleasant runniness, and potatoes underneath to absorb the hearty drippings. Just the beef, shriveled so, chocked on top with scallions, with no flavor of organ-ness, would have been enough for a meal and for a genuine endorsement. But pooling generously on the plate beneath was a type of hard-to-place, off-white awesome sauce. Huacatay, or black mint, is, according to Chowhound, a “native Peruvian herb related to marigold and tarragon, with a pungent aroma somewhere between mint and basil.” It’s also hard to come by in North America. And if you know anything about importing from South America—like, maybe you’ve seen Narcos—you know that’s some serious sauce commitment. Luckily, you can just get it from “a place in Chicago.” The blend was indeed pungent, creamy, and complexly tangy. It summed into one of the more savory, distinct meat and gravy dishes we’ve had in some time. The indefinability therein was paired by a simple conclusion: one needn’t be a fan of offal for this venture, just of life.
But even basic diners can find a home here, as can those looking to branch toward dishes of Portugal, Spain, Argentina, etc. So it’s a mélange too, but each feels like a full-blown, one-direction exploration into what makes Latin food work. And by night’s end we were left contemplating three Mexican carne asada tacos ($14), sided by impossibly creamy pork beans, and a special request that yielded a homemade bit of hot sauce brilliance. In our tortillas were tender, juicy hunks of beef, with a cabbage filling and plenty of bracing onion, and a bright tomatillo sauce that would be enough to write home about under normal circumstances. But, asking for the special stuff, one is met with a blend of lettuce, garlic, serranos (many serranos), and a touch of mayo for rich creaminess. Sneakily, smoothly hot, with a low rumbling kick, and unlike anything else experienced on a life’s journey to eat every hot sauce in the world, it made for earthy, decadent tacos, a bit smoky, a bit tangy. It teamed even better with the beans, which were seemingly built with nothing but lard and love. Liquifying love, where you can’t stop spooning, to the point you find yourself fishing out some slaw and dropped steak bits for extra spicy, saucy side bites.
It was all too much: our overzealous order quantity, the flavor, and in the kitchen’s one misstep, literally—the taco fillings leading to much burstage. The over-stuffing can and should be remedied by the double-tortilla method. But everything spilling messily in front of us seemed metaphorical somehow. Smacking lips, sweating a bit, contented, nursing a light but dark Brazilian brew, trying to process the heady wreckage before us, it felt time for a smoke or sleep, or whatever your personal contemplative act of post-coital satisfaction.
The verdict: By far the best meal of the young year, and recent memory, and clearly a restaurant set up for spicy, ballsy, gut bombshells of tradition, distinct flavors, winning combinations, and spoonfuls of tangible passion. We can only imagine what lunch, with a Butifarra, a house-spiced ham and salsa sandwich, or now, brunch, might yield. Already, C-viche seems like the neighborhood’s best antidote to so much gastropubbery, blubbery pork belly, and New-Americana.