“The Oogum Boogum Song” by Brenton Wood comes to mind upon entering La Bodega (731 W. Historic Mitchell St.) Why? That song evokes a certain type of south side hang out—not a place, mind you, but a type.

“The south side is a state of mind,” I tell myself as I walk in, catching eyes with the painting of the giant chameleon behind the register. Eleazar Maldonado, part owner of the business, sees me looking at it and looks at it with me. “You like that? My wife painted that chameleon,” he says, beaming with pride. “She actually painted this whole place.”

The place is enormous, filled with bright colors and neon signs on the walls. It is one of those buildings that still stands from Mitchell Street’s past, when it was lovingly referred to as Milwaukee’s “second downtown.” The building is labyrinthine, with solid Cream City brick as its foundations.

La Bodega hasn’t been open long—a little more than two years—but it’s a passion project for Eleazar and Geovanny Amador. “I want people to do what I do here all day: hang out and get some work done on the computer while enjoying some food I made,” Geovanny tells me from behind his long, impressive beard.

There are large tables throughout the space, with chairs that could accommodate parties of six easily, chess boards, board games, and Wi-Fi passwords readily available. Eleazar and Geovanny have inhabited this building for what seems like forever now, and they were the first people to invite me on a radio show. The location of that studio was above La Bodega, in a space equally as large, that housed their show and a few others, one most notably hosted by Sy’eir Williams, another fixture of the south side.

The menu seems to be a relic of the Mitchell Street yesteryear. Standard diner fare, here to satiate your hunger for meats in bread, cooked on a flat top by a surly, burly man in a greasy apron. Only here, the burly man standing 6’4″ cooking your food is not surly at all, but a complete sweetheart named Geovanny. I order a burger and he shouts from the back through the short order window: “You want an egg on it?” It’s a scene that seems lifted right out of Alice or Laverne & Shirley.

Geo has been cooking for a long time as a home cook, and is being taught new tricks of the trade by Eleazar and his mutual friend, Monk. “Make sure you just call me Monk in that piece,” he says, power walking past me into the back kitchen, an uncooked pig roast wrapped in plastic slung over his shoulder. “I am teaching them how to make their own brisket. They need to learn to make their own pickles as well, which is one of my favorite projects to work on.

“Check this out,” he says, handing me a jar of pickled red onions. The smell is briny and the taste is sweet, but it’s balanced with the vinegar. “Impressive,” I say, to which he responds: “I’m a scientist, bro. Food is chemistry, and that’s what I am teaching these two.”

The place has definitely created the atmosphere it was shooting for, in an unassuming storefront on the great potential of Mitchell Street. Places like this are what can help restore this piece of city to its former glory, owned by the residents who live here. Vinyl pop-up sales are also held at La Bodega, with Geo’s and Eleazar’s mutual friend Cesar selling his collection of house techno and hip-hop. If you are a vinyl collector, you know that records in that genre in decent condition are hard to come by.

Geovanny and Eleazar are known to not turn away hungry folks who come in to eat and don’t have a way to pay. If they are hungry, they are fed. If they are thirsty, they will drink. They are looking to move into catering, but the kind where you need help throwing some burgers and hot dogs on the grill at park events. This is the type of service that is not readily available in Milwaukee, and one that brings communities together with that “oogum boogum” energy.

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About The Author

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Juan Miguel Martinez is a writer from the south side of Milwaukee. He only writes until he can land a role as the mechanic friend of the handsome lead in a telenovela. His favorite movie is Repo Man.