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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Family Friendly

Rio West meets Riverwest

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The man responsible for giving Milwaukee the popular Riverwalk Boat Tours, Mondo Brothers, the longstanding Vecchio Bar and Grille and even one business quickly en route to becoming a bona-fide Milwaukee tradition—the Palm Garden fish fry at Lakefront Brewery—has just introduced his newest venture: Rio West Cantina. Russ Davis quietly opened the doors to Rio West on Humboldt Boulevard in mid-January and hopes to cater to the dynamic Riverwest neighborhood in a number of ways.

Inspired by his own experience as a parent of two little ones, Davis appeals to the child-rearing set with a kids’ menu and the addition of a playroom at his new restaurant. Think of a more down-to-earth McDonald’s PlayPlace, complete with Spanish vocab, pinatas and puzzles.

“We noticed during the fish fry at Lakefront how many kids there are,” Davis says. “So my idea was to create a family section where the kids eat at the table with their parents, and then go play in the playroom while their parents are relaxing and finishing their meal.”

And grown-ups with an interest in adult beverages will appreciate the unveiling of Rio West Cantina’s tequila club. Forty-seven different tequilas are currently available, but Davis has plans to add more.

“My ultimate goal is to have at least 100 tequilas,” Davis says. “I’m trying to be more of a neighborhood watering hole, a real cantina. I want everyone in the city to come here, but I want everyone in the neighborhood to have their own glass.”

To join the club, customers will be given a special tequila glass and a pen with which they can mark their name. The cantina will then bake the glass to set the ink.

“As you try the different tequilas, we keep a record of that,” Davis explains. “Ultimately, when you’ve tried all of the tequilas, you’re entered into a Cinco de Mayo contest to win a trip to Mexico. And throughout the contest, you’re eligible for giveaways.”

In addition to south-of-the-border spirits, the cantina offers Mexican import beers for just $3.

The cantina’s interior is ornamented with artwork Davis purchased on his sojourns to Mexico. The light fixtures suspended from the bar were acquired in Playa del Carmen, while the wooden masks were picked up on his most recent trip to Zihuatanejo.

To celebrate Riverwest’s thriving art community, Davis anticipates working with local artists to create original Day of the Dead-inspired pieces for the restaurant. In the meantime, the spacious dining room is under the watchful gaze of a large, stylized Frida Kahlo portrait and framed photographs of Dia De Los Muertos figures.

Davis collaborated with longtime employee and friend, manager/head chef Jesus Romero, to create Rio West Cantina’s simple but satisfying menu. The appetizer list offers a nice selection of homemade standards, like pineapple salsa (which can also be spotted on Riverwalk Boat Tours’ margarita cruise) and guacamole.

Ceviche is a Latin-American seafood salad typically mixed with a citrus marinade that “cooks” the fish without heat. Romero plays his ceviche safe by cooking (with heat) a blend of tilapia and shrimp and combining it with a colorful blend of freshly chopped tomato, onion and cilantro. When the weather warms and the cantina opens its large front patio, order a side of tortillas with the ceviche to make your own refreshing and tart fish tacos. Served with a basket of warm tortilla chips, the red salsa walks a well-balanced line of flavors and textures. If you’re in the market for something with a bit of a kick, Romero offers a habanerahot salsa available upon request.

Born from a Romero family recipe, a batch of the chicken tamales takes five hours to make. These tamales, hearty and filled with tender, well-seasoned chicken, are absolutely worth every minute.

“I want the staff to be perfectly comfortable with this menu, then the plan is to add a few more specials,” Davis says. “We’ll be offering a chicken mole soon, as well as tequila shrimp with a jalapeno angel hair pasta we make right here on-site. Again, I don’t want to be too crazy with the menu. I want to keep things simple.”

Located at 2730 N. Humboldt Blvd. (414) 562-5540. Kitchen is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Bar stays open 11 a.m. to close.

Photo by Kate Engbring