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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

The South Side’s Tropical Skies

Cielito Lindo offers simple, sunny fare

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In Spanish, "cielito lindo" means "pretty sky." In Milwaukee, Cielito Lindo defines simple Mexican fare in a colorful setting on Milwaukee's South Side. The ceiling in the main dining room portrays a vivid blue sky, in the center of which is a giant eagle with talons outstretched, and murals of bright Mexican scenery adorn the walls. The front bar continues the theme, offering several premium tequilas to match the tropical flavor.

Cielito Lindo, located just a few blocks from the crowded Mexican restaurants on Fifth Street, caters to smaller crowds. Nonetheless, it has grown since it first opened, adding a second bar, extra tables and an outdoor patio.

The menu offers most of the standard dishes one would expect, all at affordable prices. One exception is guacamole, which is curiously absent among the appetizers. Another item that recently disappeared from the menu is birria de chivo estilo Jalisco-the real street food of Mexico. It's a stew of goat meat with a chile-infused broth. It was bony and fatty, but had an unforgettable flavor.

The appetizers are nothing out of the ordinary, just nachos and quesadillas. Stick to the complimentary tortilla chips, which arrive with a good salsa of tomato, cilantro, onion and just enough of a chile pepper kick.

One item I enjoy is the chiles rellenos ($7.49), two large poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and topped with a tomato sauce with onions and mild green peppers. The egg batter coating the chiles is the key: It's thin and not starchy, just as a chile relleno should be. Bistec en salsa verde ($8.49) is another delight. The pieces of steak may be a bit chewy, but they are redeemed by the tart salsa of tomatillo, onion and plenty of fresh cilantro. Like most entrees, it arrives with well-prepared rice and beans.

An even better salsa is served with the lomo de puerco en salsa roja ($8.49). The red salsa flavored with mildly spicy chiles is perfect with these tender pieces of boneless pork.

Seafood cocktails, soups and entrees are also available. Caldo de camaron ($8.50) is a large, steaming bowl of shrimp soup with vegetables. The shelled shrimp come with the tails conveniently removed. Most Mexican shrimp soups tend to be very simple, usually with just carrots and white potatoes, but this one is more complex. There's still carrot, but there is chayote instead of potato, as well as celery, cabbage and fresh tomato. The broth, red from the hot pepper sauce, adds additional flavor. Chopped cilantro, onion and lime-a key flavor for this soup-are served on the side.

Camaron a la diabla ($9.50), which appears on many local Mexican menus, is also found here. It consists of shrimp in a chile pepper sauce that can range from mild to extremely spicy. This version falls somewhere in the middle, due to the addition of tomato. The green pepper and onion are standard, but the typical sweetness is not found in the salsa roja for the pork.

Because it offers reliable Mexican standards in a very colorful setting, Cielito Lindo is often busy. Don't go there expecting regional Mexican entrees or a trio of salsas with your chips. What you will find, however, is sound, simple cooking at fair prices. n

Cielito Lindo

733 S. Second St.

(414) 649-0401

$-$$

Credit Cards: MC, VS, DS

Handicap Access: Yes

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