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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Menu of the Americas

Charro’s Latin fusion

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 Milwaukee Street is getting another makeover, and once again Omar Shaikh and Tom Wackman are responsible for the change. The duo also owns Kenadee’s and Carnevor, and last year opened Umami Moto (in the former Eve) as part of a growing empire of restaurants and lounges that exude coolness. In December they added yet another venue in the same block, Charro, located in the spot once held by Tangerine.

 The question arises: Is Charro more of a restaurant or a lounge? If you arrive at 6 p.m. on a Saturday and see all of the patrons seated at tables, you would say it’s a restaurant. But if you arrive at 9 p.m., the bar and every last table in the front room will be filled, standing room only. At that point, people may not even know that a menu exists—they’re here to experience Charro’s dazzling red, white and black decor.

 Of course, those who arrive for the food will not be disappointed. The menu touches many corners of Latin America, from a Mexican base to a few Cuban touches. It’s the creation of Dominic Zumpano, a talented chef who also tends to Umami Moto. Here he leans more toward the traditional. Tacos are prepared with handmade corn and flour tortillas, and the guacamole ($7) throws no curves—but all of the flavors are right on target.

Zumpano still allows room for creativity, especially among the four ceviches offered. The halibut ($9) matches the decor with squares of white flesh topped with crosses of sweet red pepper. A few slices of jalapeno add touches of green and the whole is bathed in a fresh citrus-juice marinade. Let it sit for a bit. The firm flesh needs some time to absorb the citrus flavors. The best ceviche is the hamachi ($9), a raw option usually found in sushi bars. Here it’s minced with some bits of celery. Flavors of mango, basil, yuzu and ginger create a sensuous delight. Thin tortilla chips form a crown.

 The house salad ($5) tastes like an item from Umami Moto, with romaine and shavings of mango, red onion and cucumber in a subtle mango-lime vinaigrette. A few slices of fried plantain add a Latin American touch. Subtlety is completely absent in the Charro XXX death wings ($8), a plate of chicken wings doused in a potent habanero pepper sauce. If you can handle a lot of spice, they are quite good. For something milder, try a tamale ($3), which is sold singly in chicken, beef and vegetarian versions. The veggie is filled with goat cheese, spinach and mushroom wrapped with a corn husk. The cheese could be a bit more pungent, though it arrives with a fine pasilla pepper salsa.

 The entrees thoughtfully balance meat and seafood. Arroz con pollo ($12), a Cuban standard of marinated chicken with a delicious citrus flavor, is accompanied by red potatoes, green beans and a bed of rice that contains hints of chorizo and soybeans. Ropa vieja ($13), another Cuban favorite, combines shredded pork with beef and a topping of four melted cheeses, a touch that isn’t necessary. Pork ribs ($14) are a better bet with a glaze of chipotle barbecue sauce as tangy as it is mildly spicy.

 Be sure to order the seafood paella ($17), a traditional rice dish of Spain that is also popular in Cuba. Little rice is visible at first—all you see are blue mussels, shrimp, sea scallops and some tiny clams—but you’ll find the proper short-grained rice below. The preparation and flavors of this entree are masterful; it’s probably the best option on the menu. (Arroz con pollo is the runner-up.)

 The serious diner will likely prefer a weeknight or an earlier weekend hour. There is a separate dining room that affords more privacy as well as an additional bar and seating area on the lower level. The service is fine at all times, as at Carnevor and Umami Moto, and there is a great deal to like here—even the prices. This is a Latin American fusion that works extremely well.

Charro Restaurante, 729 N. Milwaukee St., (414) 431-5557, $$-$$$, Credit Cards: All major, Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Tate Bunker

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