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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

El Guapo’s Winning Makeover in Whitefish Bay

Former Berkeley’s Café turns to Mexican fare

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Berkeley’s Café, located in Whitefish Bay, seemed to have the right idea for the right location, serving breakfast, light lunches and an interesting international dinner menu in a North Shore village. After about a year in business, however, the café underwent a radical makeover. The new name is El Guapo’s and the focus is Mexican. Interior improvements include a warmer color scheme (the bar stools are no longer an icy white) and the ethnic charm of Mexican artifacts. The carryout counter at the entrance is gone, making room for an expanded bar. The changes seem to work: Lunch once was the domain of health-conscious women, but now the customer base is more diverse and you see more families eating here.

The menu is Mexican with a bit of Tex. The flavors are conservative as far as hot peppers go, but they also can be rich and inviting—call this North Shore-Mex cuisine. A prime example is the salsa, which not only arrives warm and often with a wisp of steam, but also carries the richness of roasted tomatoes with undertones of chile pepper. It is excellent with the crisp corn tortilla chips. Who needs guacamole?

A salsa like this hints that the kitchen has a knack for soups, and it does. The roasted tomato soup ($4.75) lacks the chile pepper but has flavors of herbs and basil oil and is topped with a bit of rosemary cream. Let the triangular crostini absorb the broth of this fine soup. The tomato soup never says Mexican, but the guajillo turkey chili ($4.75) does, with assorted beans, tortilla strips and warm flavors of chile pepper. The soup servings are large.

Entrées consist of plates revolving around tacos, burritos, enchiladas and fajitas. This is healthier Mexican fare, as nothing is fried. The burritos ($8.50) come in a pair with your choice of filling: chicken, pork, ground beef or bean. The chicken and pork are both shredded (the ground beef is best skipped altogether). The presentation is inviting and the entrée arrives with tasty rice, refried beans and pico de gallo. At first the beans appear to be topped with chopped cilantro and cheese, but, in a novel twist, it turns out to be flat-leaf parsley and cracked wheat. The enchiladas ($8.75) are offered with three sauces: a rioja with tomato flavors, a somewhat watery mole with the richness of chocolate, and a salsa verde that is mildly spicy with the tartness of tomatillos. Chicken again seems to be the best filling. A few combination plates are available, and all of these items are sold a la carte.

Hungry diners will find a few more substantial entrées as well. Chicken ($12.75) is served with the mole or a barbecue sauce. This is a half chicken served in pieces with the bone in. The barbecue sauce is very American, with a sweet, tangy flavor that is well suited for chicken. Sides consist of cabbage slaw, complemented by red onion and flat-leaf parsley, and polenta that has whole kernels of white corn—Italian grits! Barbecue shrimp are sold as an entrée ($15.75) or appetizer ($8.50). Order the sauce on the side, as only a small amount is needed.

Patrons seem to enjoy the bar more at El Guapo’s than at Berkeley’s Cafe. One major reason is the margaritas made with fresh lime juice, which has become a very welcome trend. The basic margarita costs $6, and the price tops out at $15 when prepared with the best tequila. There are only a few wines, listed on a chalkboard, but the smallish beer list is sound.

It appears that the conversion of Berkeley’s Café to El Guapo’s is a success. The new space proves that a creative makeover can win over the hearts of customers. n

El Guapo’s

342 E. Silver Spring Drive

$$

(414) 897-8624

Credit Cards: All Major

Smoke-Free

Handicap Access: Yes