We’ve all been there: sleeves rolled up, paper napkins scrunched in palm, grease trail trickling dangerously down the forearm as you angle another tortilla torpedo of mystery meat at your mouth, all the time thinking—what with the paper plates, the cheap prices, and the bumping tuba pop—now this is a Mexican restaurant. Have enough margaritas at Conejitos and get a whiff of the loving lard carrying out from the swinging kitchen doors and it’s like Tijuana! Except there’s bright yellow cheese matted in goop form all over the enchiladas, and by now the Velveeta-like stuff is starting to coagulate wastefully to said disposable plate. And then they might refuse your request for onion and cilantro on your tacos, and you rightfully start to question if this is a Mexican restaurant at all.
Still there is valor in the hunt, the one for the genuine article. So why simply settle for Bel Air and their two-hour waits over and over? How could a recent Shepherd Express Readers Poll show Qdoba and Chipotle as runners-up for Milwaukee’s “best”? Sure, Café Corazon is fresh and fine, and yes, we too love Guanajuato more than our cholesterol test says is healthy. But why be placated when there’s such a wealth of tacos, tortas, tripas, tamales, empanadas, sincronizadas, sopas, and sesos well beyond the usual Milwaukee run of familiar joints? So we set out to create a culinary roadmap, pointing west and south, and as far away as possible from the processed cheddar, the salted glasses, the lettuce and tomato taco fillings, and the over-publicized parrillada of gringo-land Mexican.
El Canaveral (2501 W. Greenfield Ave., 414-671-7118)
You could just come for the vibe, which is ’Sconnie basement meets border town cantina, with warm wood, an old school bar, and mariachi bric-a-brac. Or you could come for the destination-worthy quartet of table salsas, highlighted by the impossibly pureed habanero cream and an equally smooth jalapeño version. Each provides perfect spice and silkiness for between-tortilla-flaps meat cohesion. But then there’s gut-busting fare like the pambazo ($6.50)—a torta kicked up a notch, with the bolillo roll coated in fire red guajillo sauce and then quick-griddled. And there’s the Mexico City specialty and a rarity around town, the alambre ($10.95)—essentially a pork-on-pork-on-steak skillet, with crisped asada, chorizo, and bacon topped with cilantro, onion, tomatoes, jalapenos, and melty queso. It’s a greasy, heady, make-your-own taco mash, and shows the ultimate stir fry might actually be the Mexican kind.
La Canoa (1520 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-645-1140)
Less Desperado and more Little Mermaid, this 16th and Lincoln spot offers a vomitorium of aquamarine hues and an unabashed display of maritime kitsch. Even the chips—oversalted and overly satisfying—contribute to the gaudy affair with their Mexican flag-themed colors. And even the table salsas, heavy with chunks of avocado, include an oyster ceviche option rife with lime juice, indicating the level of sensory oversaturation to come. The menu is a Moby Dick of every kind of catch: snapper, tilapia, catfish, octopus, frogs’ legs. Some trips even seem to yield a complimentary seafood empanada, for what is always considerable pondering time. We keep coming back to the diabla sauce. Here the “devil” is not nearly as spicy as similar sauces about town, but it’s so buttery and zingy at once, a rich red gravy as the perfect Mexican ideal of a Buffalo sauce. It coats the shrimp (camarones a la diabla $15.95) especially well, and is just as tasty when it runs into the accompanying potato salad and rice.
Quiote (5814 W. Bluemound Rd., 414-698-2708)
It’s well off any taqueria row, and it’s small enough to be off any radar whatsoever. But there’s a singular reason to double back down Bluemound. The next time a native of San Diego insists the only proper fish tacos are from said So-Cal town, you can punch them right in the throat and mention Quiote. Here the “tacos de pescado” ($12) come in whitefish form, which is generously ancho chile seasoned and grilled into soft, saucy niblets. One corn and one flour tortilla house the fish along with creamy chipotle aioli, bright pico de gallo, crumbly queso fresco, and lettuce (acceptable, just this once, for freshness bringing). Our only complaint is there are only two to an order, and our appetite is but one.
Taqueria El Cabrito (1100 S. 11th St., 414-385-9000)
All Mexican food is hangover food. But there might be no better too-much-cerveza salve than birria, the goat stew of Jalisco. Here the house specialty ($10.75) comes in a mammoth steaming bowl of chocolate-y brown, salty broth with shred-y bits of tender, pulled, slow-cooked meat. Plop the goat and gravy on warm tortillas with onion, cilantro, a squirt of lime to cut the heavy earthiness, and a ketchup-bottle dab of zingy red salsa to placate liver pains and regret. There’s also carne en su jugo ($11.95) if you prefer a cow version of the same dish, stocked with radishes, avocado, and a hearty, sinus-clearing essence. It’s a friendly stop for a taco regardless of time, but they open everyday at 7 a.m.—good to keep in mind for requisite around-the-week nursing, or just some pre-work chorizo and eggs ($7.95). If only they could get some alcohol, it might be the perfect day-after stop.
Taqueria Los Comales (1306 S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr., 414-384-6101)
If you can’t wait until morning to soak up a night of too much, there’s this Chicago-based chain on Cesar Chavez slinging till-very-late tortas ($5.29) and tacos ($1.69). We like the suadero torta—juicy, cubed flank steak, tucked within a bolillo roll whose insides have been grilled black. This sandwich approach leaves a pillow-y outside and sturdy interior, consistently laced with meat, lettuce, tomatoes, velvety queso, and runny sour cream. The franchise’s home is based in vibrant, bustling Little Village, and it’s a spot indicative of the every-other-corner taquerias throughout our big city southern neighbor. And while here they have undersized tacos, it’s good for the moderation tactic—smaller sizes means you can order more. Add an ensemble of late night characters and the spot yields a most cultural alternative to drunken Pizza Shuttle.
JC King’s Tortas (3128 S. 13th St., 414-389-5627)
Maybe the tacky, Packers color bastardization on the building is just a metaphor for the taste that lies within: you’d be hard pressed to find a meal as disgusting and delicious as a torta from the King. Try any of the alchemist sandwich concoctions—the eggs with chorizo, hot dog, and ham; the steak, mozzarella, pineapple, and bacon; the head cheese (!)—and you’ll be met by a veritable meat brick house, housed in oil-coated bolillo, liberally topped with beans, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, avocado, and mayonnaise. One more decision: jalapenos or chipotle? You want smoke or you want spice? You want both. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Here every torta is too big (a “grande” runs from $10, but half is enough for two meals), and every bite is politician-slick with mayo-y gluttony. Sometimes it’s good to feel bad about a meal.
Taco Loco (3524 W. Burnham St., 414-643-1616)
Rick Bayless, a man who knows more about Mexican food, and thus life, than a tortilleria full of Aristotles, endorses any taqueria attached to a grocery store. Something about ingredient freshness, carne quality, whatever. Just witness the less “loco” and more basic focus of the taco fare at any El Rey, our most iconic Mexican grocer. The cecina (tacos run from $2.39), an oregano and salt-seasoned steak slab, is tender and thin enough to snap apart neat and easy with each bite, and a hint of avocado makes the salsa a bit different, a bit creamy, and a bright counterpoint to the beef. But the real catch here, al pastor—diced, blood red-greased, tender and mushy with a depth of piggy, smoky flavor—does so much solo that you don’t even really need sauce. Three of these jobs are just the ticket to fortify for the line at the meat counter.
Taqueria Buenavista taco truck
The next best thing to a taqueria in a grocery store might be a taco truck parked outside of one. Most days you can find the rolling outpost of this West Allis joint along Chase Avenue, by the Mexican-centric Piggly Wiggly in Bay View. Just don’t let the server—always friendly, always quick with an “amigo”—ruin your tacos ($1.50) with lettuce or tomato. Insist on onion and cilantro only, and let the winning jalapeno cream hot sauce shine atop tender asada, spiced chicken, or the soupy birria. Do you really need to hit a taco truck after stocking up on at-home taco supplies? For some of the best greasy street fare in town, you should.
Carnitas Don Lucho (565 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-385-9970)
If the foodstuff is in the name, you get said foodstuff. And thus we found ourselves on a Saturday afternoon, in a gritty shadow of St. Josaphats Basilica, watching a pleasant guy with a big knife go at a heap of pig. Waiting on a half-pound ($3.81) of the braised-in-fat stuff to go, we sampled the pride of Michoacán in in-store taco form ($2.25). The pork bits have a fatty sheen, indicative of ample time basking in lard and love. But it might be the pastor we’ll most remember—big, saucy chunks, with subtle whispers of onions, murmurs of cilantro, atop a single, crisped tortilla that feels like a homemade hybrid of flour and corn. Its sauciness almost caused regret that there wasn’t more use for the salsas, which, with seemingly no water added and a thick, lush consistency, are a perfect study in contrast—the red is deeply smoky and piquant, while the verde bursts with cilantro and jalapeno garden-y freshness. It’s a limited hours, weekend-only spot—we’d have to assume because carnitas are holy.
Morelia’s Market (2105 S. 6th St., 414-645-2103)
A more covert temple of pork, this dingy quicky mart is good to stock up on toilet paper, esoteric Mexican candy, El Milagro tortillas, and if you make your way to the back on a weekend, one pound of the best carnitas imaginable ($7.50). Get there early for the choicest bits, but even a late afternoon trip yields a sexy, shredded hunk of pork wrapped in paper, glistening with tasty fat, shimmering with taco possibility. Too bad it’s impossible to get the pig package all the way home without ripping into the hammy morsels and dunking in their oniony red salsa. It’s pork as the best kind of finger food, and you’re bound to be left with far less than a pound for the upcoming week.
Taqueria Los Altos De Jalisco (1336 S. 7th St., 414-645-9902)
Tucked back within the Mi Super Foods market—part of the great restaurant row of Morgandale that includes two other stops on this list and the quiet brilliance of Christie’s—is this colorful little taqueria that has perfected the art of dicing. Atop pillow-y homemade corn tortillas and beneath a mountain of cilantro you’ll find miniscule scraps of perfectly marinated pastor. And somehow the steak is even better—fantastically tender, practically spurting juices, with a crisped exterior, zero grizzly-ness, and a distinct intangibility that left us pondering each bite. We decided these are basically perfectly constructed tacos, each ($1.91) offering a huge, heaping mass and zero counter fallout. So their specialty is big tacos of small meats, and size makes all the difference: the tiny bits of filling let the grease and salsa run like flavor rivers throughout. These are steak tacos that make Guanajuato, the self-proclaimed Milwaukee king of asada, look a bit like Chi-Chi’s.
Guadalajara (901 S. 10th St., 414-647-2266)
Just a jalapeno’s throw from the cluster-fuck of bachelorette parties, nachos, and the quest for margaritas-on-patios in the “Latin Quarter” sits this grandma’s house of Milwaukee Mexican food. The homely, old school stalwart has mastered the use of the arbol chile—the tiny red pepper where the distinction between pleasant forehead perspiration and “Holy shit, that’s too hot!” is about two seeds from one of the devilish, dehydrated fuckers. The bistec en chile de arbol ($10.95) may be the best way to sample the spicy wares, and one of the best overall plates of food in town. Scoop chopped steak bits—swimming in a marinade of the dangerous, dark red sauce—onto warm corn tortillas and let your taste buds pop, whine, and sing. Throw on some creamy refrieds to cut the zing—you don’t need to be a hero. If you are a Scoville scale veteran though, there’s an upon-request-only arbol-based salsa. Smacking of deep chile roasting, and with waitress-disclaimers of “Be careful,” this is great to scoop atop tacos ($2), wonderful gaping, golden gorditas ($2.50), or any goddamn thing you can think to put in your face hole. An experience here is the friendliest, tastiest way to clean out the system.
El Tucanazo (2940 S. 13th St., 414-383-3748)
Far from the salty rims of Conejito’s margaretville sits the 10-diner-seat and 3-table dive, a spot a native of the Mexican state of Hidalgo told us is as close to the vibe of the motherland as Milwaukee gets. That means if your neighbor orders carne asada, you’re going to get pummeled with waves of steak smoke from the flattop, there will be Tecate-swilling, futbol-viewing, and nothing but onion and cilantro on your tacos (without even asking!) There will be no yellow cheese (a blaspheme in a Mexican kitchen), though here they have an “American” portion of the menu, replete with burgers, which we have to assume is only a joke. After all, the place is reeking of so much pepper and meat essence, is at once so colorful and dingy, and the salty, sheeny, velvety bath of onion-and-cilantro-chocked green sauce for our steak so tasty (“bistec en salsa verde” $12), we felt we’d finally saddled that elusive “authentic” tag after all. There’s more evidence: The pastor is just right, both char-y and greasy. A taco of cochinita pibil ($1.50) with a dab of house chipotle salsa reeks of low-and-slow and smoke, making north-of-the-border barbecue nerdery seem kind of silly. It’s also probably the only place in town to list the Guadalajara specialty carne desebrada—a shredded beef in guajillo sauce. Altogether maybe it is a place like Mexico itself: a spot to get lost in, with flavors of subtle complexity, good smells, friendly vibes, and a saucy, spicy, carb-and-protein mix done downhome. The most comforting of comfort foods, even when on a culinary adventure.