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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Quimera’s Rich Puerto Rican Flavor

Tropical cuisine in Walker’s Point

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Puerto Rican cooking, with influences as African as they are Spanish, can seem deceptively simple. Pork and seafood figure prominently and starchy plantains in the form of tostones and mofongo are commonly found on menus in this tropical island. There have been local restaurants serving this fare for a number of years, but their menus seem a bit stripped down compared to those found in San Juan.

About 18 months ago, Olga and Jorge Ramirez opened a restaurant named Quimera Cocina Boricua in Walker’s Point. Spanish Colonial touches add to the inviting, contemporary interior. Tables smartly topped with white and blue linens accent a warm and earthy palette that includes tile floors. The first of two dining areas consists of a bar, tables, booths and a counter for solo diners at the window, while the second boasts a large fireplace.

The menu is a definitive list of Puerto Rican specialties, from soups and salads to entrees of beef, pork, chicken and seafood. A server quickly arrived with a complimentary plate of arańitas (fried fritters of shredded green plantain) that are fine by themselves or with the house’s creamy tomato-based dipping sauce. Sofrito, a thick, flavorful cooking base often found in Puerto Rico, appears frequently on the menu. The best, naturally, is homemade. There are a few variations of sofrito; this version is closer to recaíto, which is made with onion, bell pepper and cilantro. With tomato added, the flavors become like a really good creole sauce. Quimera’s sofrito is found in the asopao de camarones ($12.95), a rice stew reminiscent of gumbo. The camarones, shelled shrimp with tails, swim in a reddish tomato-based broth. The sofrito adds a gentle whiff of cilantro and an air of refinement to this humble dish. This is what Puerto Rican food should be, and it’s better than any asopao I found while visiting the island. Quimera’s asopaos are perfect fare for Milwaukee, seemingly designed for our many winter days.

Mofongo is a big starchy ball of either plantain or yuca. Yuca is Spanish for cassava and has nothing to do with yucca, an entirely different plant. At Quimera there are four options for mofongo relleno, a type of mofongo that has been hollowed into a bowl in order to be stuffed. Of the four, the most interesting version is the bacalao guisado. This is a stew of salted codfish with the whole gamut of sofrito ingredients. The flavors of the guisado are more intense than in the asopao because the garlic is more noticeable and it lacks a broth to diffuse the piquancy. While the flavor of salt is nearly absent in the thin pieces of cod, the sauce brings this starchy plantain pulp to life.

Chuletas de lomo ($8.99) is three boneless slices of pork with rice and a simple side salad of lettuce and green pepper strips. The pork, unfortunately, was cooked too long and a bit dry. The rice is a choice of Puerto Rican rice or ordinary white with beans. The former is laced with gandules, also called pigeon peas, and has a reddish hue thanks to sofrito. Other meats include roasted chicken and biftek encebollado. Only a few items are priced at more than $10.

Quimera has become an excellent local choice for food of the Latin Caribbean. The bar is nice enough to be a destination of its own, a comfortable spot for a mojito with a plate of appetizers. Puerto Rican food tends to be fried and starchy, but the upside is the richness of flavors that Quimera does so well.

Quimera631 W. National Ave. (414) 645-8202 $$ Credit Cards: MC, VS, DS Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

Photos by Don Rask

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