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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013

Fishing for Mexican Seafood

La Canoa is one of a kind in Milwaukee

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At most local Mexican restaurants seafood takes up little of the menu, and is usually limited to shrimp fajitas, maybe a seafood cocktail and, if lucky, a ceviche appetizer. But that changed dramatically in the autumn of 2009 when La Canoa opened its doors. “Canoa” is Spanish for fishing boat and the bar sits inside a portion of a boat installed in the interior. The dining area is a riot of color with undersea murals and hand-carved chair backs decorated with every type of sea creature imaginable.

Seafood dominates all but the last two pages of the large, illustrated menu. Before you order, multicolored tortilla chips will arrive with two or three salsas. The two red varieties pack some spice and one also has chunks of avocado. A milder, green-colored salsa is also served. Each diner is given a seafood empanada—a pastry filled with spicy fish—and there is a small serving of fish ceviche. If you enjoy this, be reassured: there are eight other ceviches on the menu.

The menu has many categories. Besides ceviches, there are listings for cócteles (seafood cocktails), caldos (soups), camarones (shrimp) and huachinago (red snapper). But these are relatively easy to find locally. Add pulpo (octopus), mojarra (tilapia), bagre (catfish) and rana (frog legs). Now you have a real Mexican seafood menu. One item tucked into the appetizers section might escape notice. This is langostinos ($13.96/6, $25.95/12) and it really is not an appetizer. The smaller size has six split saltwater crawfish served with a glorious red sauce of bold chili peppers. They arrive with white rice, a bit of potato salad and a stack of napkins. They are a mess to eat but worth every savory bite. They may be ordered with garlic bread sticks or tortillas. Opt for the first, which easily sops up the extra sauce.

For something less messy, try the camarones. The jumbo shrimp are served in several different ways. A la diabla ($15.95) is the spiciest with an orange-red sauce likely prepared with chiles de arbol. It also sets high standards with authentic flavor. Milder palates should enjoy camarones al mojo de ajo in a gentle garlic sauce.

The soups are divided into three categories: caldos, sopas and cazuela. The ultimate here is the sopa de mariscos ($15.95), which includes six types of seafood. The ample bowl is heaped as high as possible. On top of it all is a whole crab that is a bit larger than the U.S. blue crab. A claw cracker is provided with a stack of napkins. Request a side plate as there are still more shells to crack. These would be the cherrystone clams, which are wise to eat first to provide access to the broth flavored with bottled chili pepper sauce. Now it’s time to add some of the chopped jalapeno pepper, cilantro and onion provided on a separate plate. Also squeeze some juice from one of the limes. Other seafood encountered in the soup includes squid, octopus, fish (including the head), imitation crab and even some whole crawfish. The multitude of flavors adds up to a fine broth. A group of two or more could try the canoa del amor ($65), a tabletop wooden boat overflowing with nearly every type of seafood on the menu.

Carnivores are not completely out of the picture. There are basics like pork enchiladas, some chicken dishes and a fiery and quite good lomo (rib-eye steak) with chile de arbol. Also check out the specials not on the menu. Some are elaborate seafood dishes and each table has a listing of the beef steaks offered here. Every diner should be happy.

There is a fine list of tequilas and the usual selection of Mexican beers. The service is casual but attentive, and although the dining room can be a bit noisy when crowded, everyone is here for the right reason—the seafood.

 

La Canoa

1520 W. Lincoln Ave.

414-645-1140

$-$$

Handicap access: Yes