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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Quest for Colombian

A South Side adventure

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When you’re deciding where to eat, are you in the routine of choosing from the same five restaurants? Many of us are creatures of habit, relying on the convenience and comfort of knowing what to expect. But what about adventure—where does that fit in? With a visit to a new, unique restaurant, an ordinary day that would normally blur together with the rest of the week can stand apart and add some needed flavor.

There’s no better place to start your new gastro adventure than Mekato’s Bakery and Cafe, the only Colombian restaurant in the state.

“We’re proud to bring something different to Milwaukee, something they don’t have here,” says owner John Bohorquez, who hails from Medellin, Colombia. “People are so used to Mexican food. Having a Colombian restaurant gives them a new taste.”

When Bohorquez opened Mekato’s with his wife and two children in 2006, the original plan was to run the business as a bakery, but after three months of listening to customers request full meals, Bohorquez was happy to oblige by expanding the menu to include more than 20 different plates.

Bright and cheery, Mekato’s is decorated with imports from Colombia, including original artwork and souvenirs. “We also import a lot of ingredients and our breads are made from machines brought in from Colombia,” Bohorquez says. “If they’re not made with those machines, they just don’t taste the same.” The fresh breads fill the long bakery case in neat, labeled sections, some familiar, some completely for eign. Turnovers, donuts, cakes and croissants sit beside bunuelos (rolls of soft, subtly sweet cheese bread), dulce de leche (sweet milk pastry) and brevas con are quipe (delicate figs topped with caramel).

Apart from being enormous, Mekato’s bakery selection is wonderfully inexpensive. It practically begs curious customers to experiment with unfamiliar flavors and exotic ingredients, without the worry of spending money on something they may not like. With the exception of large cakes and pans of firm, sweet flan, baked goods run from 35 cents to $3, with most of the items costing about a dollar. Coffee is one of Colombia’s most prized exports, so for a complete experience, don’t go away without trying Mekato’s cafe con leche.

With savory, moist empanadas and papas relleas, Mekato’s excels at the fried arts. A nice balance occurs when you dip them in a flavorful and piquant green salsa called ahi. Included in this esteemed category of “frituras” are arepas, round corn cakes similar to a tortilla.

In Colombia they’re considered a snack or side dish and are often served with cheese, eggs and sausage. Arepas also make an appearance during Mekato’s small but sufficient breakfast. Mekato’s menu of authentic Colombian dishes reads like a menu from a Mexican restaurant, but isn’t served as such. Instead, seafood, pork, steak and chicken are served with sides of fried plantains and yucca.

We should consider ourselves lucky to live in a city of diverse, rich cultures, where Colombia is as close as the corner of National Avenue and 35th Street. Let your adventure in gastronomy begin!

Mekato’s is located at 3500 W. National Ave. For more information, call (414) 383-2233. Open daily 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Patio seating and parking are available.

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