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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New to Riverwest

Rio West’s modest Mex

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The Riverwest neighborhood continues to show signs of revitalization. The most noticeable addition is the new Alterra Coffee Roasters, located at Humboldt and Chambers. A few blocks to the south, you’ll find another new sign: The Rio West Cantina, which occupies the site of the former Mondo Brothers Market and Cafe.

From the name, you can guess that the food is Mexican. Owner Russ Davis, who also owns the Vecchio restaurant Downtown, converted the space to a new format. There is now a small bar with an impressive array of tequilas and the former market space has been transformed into an open dining area. At the far end of the dining room, there’s even a small play area for children. Mexican handicrafts, including a skull painting of the famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, create a decor that is sure to spark conversation. Unlike Mondo Brothers, Rio West offers table service. A basket of crisp tortilla chips arrives right away, along with a salsa that has a tomato base, a dash of cilantro and enough hot pepper to earn it respect. The salsa definitely ranks above the norm in Milwaukee.

When perusing the beer and tequila list, the prices will be a pleasant surprise. Bottles of Mexican beer are $3 and shots of tequila cost as low as $1.50. The basic margarita ($3.50) has a nice tart mix. Even ones made with the best tequilas should cost no more than $6.

The menu, unfortunately, is not as broad as the tequila list, but it is inexpensive, with combination plates that max-out at $8.95. Expect little besides tacos, enchiladas, burritos and tamales—you get the idea. This is not a place for camarones al mojo de ajo or chicken mole negro. What redeems Rio West is its quality. Although the fare is run-of-the-mill, it is prepared well. The guacamole ($4.95) is creamy, but not processed into a puree. It has chopped tomato and a hint of fresh cilantro. Ceviche ($4.95), which is as daring as this menu gets, comes in a bowl of minced shrimp and cooked fish. Again there is some minced cilantro and a marinade of fresh lime juice: perfect fare to nibble at the bar or one of the window tables.

The entrees revolve around combination platters that include beans and rice. Both are above average. The beans still resemble beans, not a ladle of mush. The rice is not that artificial-looking orange tone found too often locally; it is long-grained and has a saffron hue.

Try the tamales ($7.95). The filling is chicken, lighter in spirit than pork. The meat is stuffed in corn dough and wrapped with a corn husk. Thankfully they are properly steamed, as nothing is as disappointing as dry tamales. The tortillas help the tacos and tostadas. Flour tortillas can be chewy things, but here the bean tostada is on a tortilla that has been lightly grilled. Steak tacos ($8.95) are very simple, pieces of chopped meat with lettuce and tomato. Add hot sauce or salsa for extra flavor. The best option is the simple cheese enchilada served with a red sauce with a vibrant flavor.

While the menu could clearly be larger, the food is on a par with the many Mexican restaurants near Fifth Street and National Avenue. The seating is spacious and the setting is casual, making Rio West Cantina a welcome addition to Riverwest.

RIO WEST CANTINA
2730 N. Humboldt Blvd. (414) 562-5540 $-$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Jessica Kaminski

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