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Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009

Community Favorite

El Cabrito’s unpretentious fare

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You may be familiar with the name “El Cabrito,” as two vans bearing that signature serve lunch tacos in Milwaukee nine months out of the year. And if you’ve ordered from one, you know that the tacos are prized for their authenticity.

Taqueria El Cabrito also has a restaurant, located in a quiet residential neighborhood in a building fondly remembered for housing the Atotonilco Restaurant in years past. The interior at El Cabrito is much brighter than its predecessor, with a ceiling painted like a sunny sky and abundant use of yellowish-orange paint. The bar is also gone; El Cabrito is strictly a family restaurant and does not serve alcohol. But thanks to inexpensive, authentic fare, the restaurant does a brisk business.

A basket of tortilla chips arrives quickly, accompanied by two salsas and a bowl of marinated carrot slices, onions and jalapeno peppers. One salsa is made with tomatoes and a generous amount of hot peppers. The other offers the same level of spiciness, but is made entirely of dried chiles.

As you’d expect at a place that calls itself a taqueria, a substantial amount of the menu is devoted to tacos, tortas, burritos, gorditas and tostadas. A wide variety of meats are used, but there are also a few vegetarian options. The tacos ($1.55) are made with two corn tortillas of the smaller size that are so common in Mexico. Carne asada al carbon is grilled beefsteak that is chopped before being served. The tacos al pastor are a personal favorite and may be the best in Milwaukee. The meat is chopped more finely than usual, but the pork has a great flavor infused with mild chiles. Skip the lettuce and tomato; just order these with chopped onion and cilantro.

The tostadas ($2.95) are larger. The chorizo has a tortilla with a thin coating of refried beans; next is a layer of crumbled chorizo, the spicy Mexican sausage; then the meat is topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, mild white cheese, a dollop of sour cream and a slice of avocado. The ingredients may be simple, but the results are on target.

Another reason to visit El Cabrito is their specialty, birria, a stew that originates from Jalisco, Mexico, and can be made from nearly any meat. El Cabrito makes birria with goat meat and serves it as a large, tasty bowl of steaming broth, red from the mild, dried chile peppers. A side plate holds chopped onion, cilantro and a lime wedge. Request additional lime, as this is the ingredient that makes birria so special. And be prepared for a very generous serving.

Entrees consist mainly of meat, with a few seafood items as well. Most are served with decent rice and beans. Carne asada and pork al pastor come in bigger portions and the shrimp cocktail is quite large. At first, the chicharron en salsa verde ($9.25) does not seem unusual. Chicharron typically is a term for fried pork rind, but in this case the pork skin is not fried into a puffy crisp. It is simply slices of the skin and has a slippery texture. This may seem like a bizarre choice, but the tart salsa verde makes it quite palatable.

One vegetarian entree is nopalitos a la plancha ($9.25). Nopalito is the paddle of an opuntia cactus, also called a prickly pear. The preparation could not be simpler, with the cactus pieces grilled with onion. The mild flavor is accompanied by a pleasant tartness.

It is easy to see why El Cabrito is so popular with the local community. Everything is tasty and the prices are fair. This is the place for Mexican food of high quality without any pretensions—or margaritas, for that matter.

Taqueria el Cabrito 1100 S. 11th St. (414) 385-9000 $ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoke-Free

Photo by Tate Bunker