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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Small Eatery, Big Value

Villa's Oaxacan specialties

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The area bordered by National and Lincoln avenues, between First and 35th streets, boasts dozens of small Mexican restaurants, many with signs in Spanish only. Some are good and some are mediocre, so finding a decent one can be a bit of a gamble. Occupying the same block as the recently reopened Briggs Pub, a vintage Schlitz corner tavern, is a solid choice in Villa’s Restaurant.

Villa’s windows are painted with menu offerings and the basic interior offers some character: Floor and tabletops are painted a vivid blue and the eclectic decor includes prints of The Last Supper on the walls and ceiling fans emblazoned with the logo of the Green Bay Packers. A TV plays Mexican soap operas that are sometimes drowned out by the CD jukebox.

For a small place, the menu is quite large, with the usual dinner plates, a few caldos (soups), some seafood dishes and a page of house specialties. While perusing the menu, you may notice some large platters of food arriving from the kitchen. One may be a tlayuda, a folded tortilla the size of a pizza with an assortment of fillings. This dish is a specialty of Oaxaca, as are a few of the other items. Don’t expect an assortment of moles, though, as Villa’s forte is the homemade corn flatbreads used in their sopes, gorditas and tlayudas.

Another specialty is the tamales Oaxaquenos ($8.75), a platter of tamales filled with chicken, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Though not too difficult to find locally, these are better than the norm. There is no mole, and the only seasoning is a mild red chile paste blended with the chicken. A normal serving is two of these large tamales, but here it is five! Plan on bringing leftovers home.

That serving is nearly outdone by the gorditas dinner ($8.75), another house specialty. A gordita is a thick tortilla that is sliced in the middle, like a pita bread, and then stuffed. There are several options for the filling. Nopalitos con chorizo, pieces of opuntia cactus paddle with spicy ground sausage, is a wise pick. The cactus has a hint of tartness that helps lighten the chorizo, which by its nature is rich and a bit oily. Other ingredients include a thin layer of refried beans and white cheese. The dinner comes with a pair of these big monsters, along with good rice and still more beans and cheese. Consider ordering a gordita a la carte ($3), which should be ample for most diners.

Mole Oaxaqueno ($9.25) is not listed with the house specialties but really should be. This is chicken (which can be substituted with pork) with the classic mole negro, a dark sauce whose focal ingredient is chocolate. Again the serving is big—comprised of three large boneless chicken breasts—but the excellent mole is difficult to resist. In addition to rice and beans, there is a simple salad of lettuce with a slice of tomato and a wedge of lime.

The other dinner plates tend to be more manageable. Lomo de res en salsa de arbol ($9.25) can be found locally. This beef with a sauce of arbol chile peppers is often an extremely hot and spicy dish. Here it comes with slices of skirt steak that are well trimmed and pounded to make them more tender. The sauce, with its rich red hue of dried arbol chiles, is in the medium range of spiciness—not explosive, but it adds some kick.

Along with soft drinks, you’ll find a small selection of Mexican beers. Margaritas are also available. Servers are friendly and will get your order right. For sheer quantity, Villa’s offers substantial value. Even though the dining room is simply decorated and at times noisy, it is of minor consequence when the mole negro and salsa de arbol are this good.

Villa’s Restaurant 2522 W. Greenfield Ave. (414) 672-1943 $ Credit Cards: MC, VS Handicap Access: Yes Smoke-free

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