Rio West Cantina
The Rio West Cantina has an inviting atmosphere, friendly service and reasonable prices, but overall, it's your typical U.S. version of Mexican food.
We must have driven by this fresh-looking, newer place at least a hundred times at 2730 N. Humboldt in the heart of Milwaukee’s eclectic Riverwest neighborhood, right at the Center Street intersection where all the alternative-culture clubs and taverns bottom out. This particular Saturday afternoon, our curiosity—and hunger—got the best of us and we finally stopped in for a bite. We were looking forward to seeing if the food and interior of the Rio West Cantina are as intriguing as its appearance from the street.
The outdoor patio just off the roomy parking lot is inviting with every table sheltered under large umbrellas. The interior is full of festive colors and what appear to be original works of Mexican-themed art on the walls, just how one likes to see a Mexican restaurant. Two, widescreen TV units let customers keep up with their favorite sports. We particularly liked the Mexican music being piped in overhead. It was more modern Mexican music, not that corny, folksy, broken-heart stuff with accordions and brass horns. Even so, the place gives the impression of being just an average, Mexican eatery.
The menu features some unique, interesting offerings. Ceviche, a Latin American favorite made of raw seafood, cooked only with the acid of lemon or other citrus juice, is available on the weekends for $7.95 – just having this on their menu earns them points. And roasted beet salad for $8.95!? It comes on mixed greens with goat cheese and pecans tossed with honey-citrus vinaigrette. Nice.
But the vast majority of the menu selections consists of the usual-and-ordinary dishes offered at most mainstream, Mexican restaurants in the U.S. – enchiladas, chimichangas, tacos, burritos, etc. The lunch menu is served between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and offers a choice of flour, corn or whole-wheat tortillas, with a choice of chicken, ground beef, steak or vegetables. Lunch comes with refried beans and Mexican rice (of course), and the prices run either $6.95 or $7.95. Add an extra buck for the steak.
There is a unique, Mexican Saturday and Sunday brunch menu offering, among other things, three-egg Huevos Rancheros for $6.95, “Hangover Tacos” (three tacos with eggs, cheese, tomatoes and cilantro topped with chipotle mayonnaise or creamy poblano sauce, with a choice of bacon, chorizo, shrimp, steak or vegetables), also for $6.95, and “North of the Border Pancakes” (either piña colada, chocolate or “Happy Gringo,” which is how they lamentably describe the buttermilk pancakes) for $4.95.
Tex-Mex dinners and house specialties cost between $7.95 and $12.95 and include pretty typical choices. The kids’ menu also has pretty run-of-the-mill offerings, but all are just $3.99.
The typical, U.S.-version of Mexican offerings, along with the few a-typical items on the menu, suggest to us that Rio West Cantina has the potential of rising above an average, U.S.-Mexican restaurant. The proof would be in the taste and quality of the food itself. So we wanted to see what the average dishes were like. Did they stand out from all the other, typical “Mexican” restaurants around here?
Mrs. M. tried the lunch plate with a huge steak chimichanga for $8.95 and a Dos Equis beer for $4; Mr. M. sampled the lunch Enchiladas plate for $6.95 and a margarita on the rocks for $4. The average offerings turned out to be just that – average. The huge, out-of-control portion sizes did not make up for it (more ≠ better, in this case).
The 75 or so tequila choices offered do not, in our opinion, cause this restaurant to rise above average quality. What does, however, keep it solidly average, if not maybe even threaten to lower its status, is the poor sanitation that we observed. Though we were very glad to be able to see from our table that the cooks in the kitchen were wearing latex gloves while preparing the food, our menus were soiled with bits of guacamole, salsa and God knows what else. A nearby table remained uncleared of the previous customers’ dirty dishes during our entire visit. We observed two, small black rotary fans, round in shape (the ones that are all-plastic made by Honeywell), positioned high up on a wooden column that were strategically aimed down at the bar area; the backs of both were covered with so many greasy dust-bunnies that they looked like they had shaggy fur coats growing on them. When those fans are turned on, nasty particles from that stuff get blown down all over the patrons and into everything being consumed at the bar and, by the looks of it, even into the kitchen to some extent.
Recipe for Enchiladas
Of the constellation of foods that have originated in the Americas and spread throughout the entire world – turkey, coco, vanilla, corn/maize, chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, peanuts, papayas, pineapples, squash, cranberries, lima beans and butter beans, Concord grapes, blueberries, green beans or string beans, quinoa – Mexican enchiladas incorporate what we think are some of the brightest of those stars: Corn, chilies, and tomatoes. Of course, turkey and/or potatoes make a nice, native filling for them and, as crazy as it sounds, you can even add a hint of coco or bitter chocolate into the sauce for these and it gives them a rich and mysterious taste!
- ¾ lb. meat/protein: ground beef, pork, chopped shrimp, shredded turkey or chicken. We like to use rotisserie chicken (we freeze all the rest of the meat that we don’t use for this recipe and save it to dice up in Cajun/Creole recipes)
- Corn tortillas: at least eight
- Vegetable oil: use peanut, canola or other type with high smoking point
- 2–3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
- 1½ to 2 cups Chihuahua or other Mexican cheese (mild Cheddar will do), grated
- ½ cup (one medium) onion, finely chopped
- Ground red/cayenne pepper
- 24 oz. commercial enchilada sauce of choice (or make your own, if you can)
- Preheat oven to 350º F.
- The Meat Filling: Sauté onions and garlic until caramelized in a large skillet. Add in meat and sauté until browned (crumbling ground meat finely). Cook chopped shrimp about five minutes, until it just starts turning pink. Already-cooked, shredded poultry just needs to be warmed through (if using raw poultry, make sure you chop it finely and cook it a good 20 minutes in the sauce). Remove to a large bowl and mix in ¼ cup of enchilada sauce, ½ cup cheese, ½ teaspoon salt, and red/cayenne pepper to taste (we use about a tablespoon); set aside.
- Tortillas: Pour 1¼ cups of enchilada sauce in an 8” x 12” glass baking dish. Heat a few teaspoons of oil to coat the skillet.
- WARNING: The rest of the recipe is really messy. Wear an apron.
- Using kitchen tongs, dip tortilla in the sauce in the glass dish to coat the tortilla on both sides. Place tortilla in the skillet and fry for a few seconds, until the tortilla just begins to turn soft and delicate. Use tongs and a spatula to gently flip over. Gently “pour” the fried tortilla out of the skillet onto a plate, using the tongs and/or spatula to very gently coax it out. Repeat with remaining tortillas, adding more oil to the skillet as necessary, and rotating the plate around as you pour out each softened tortilla so they overlap (this makes it easy to deal with them individually after frying in the sauce).
- Assemble enchiladas (we wear washed, latex gloves to do this). Divide the meat mixture into eight equal portions, placing each portion just off center of a tortilla, then spread it out in a long cigar shape, just so each tip of the “cigar” comes up to its edge of the tortilla, and carefully rolling the tortilla up afterwards into a tube. Place each in the baking dish seam-side down, repeating until you have eight neatly placed in a row in the casserole dish.
- Cover the tortilla rolls with the remaining sauce and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Place in the oven and cook 10–15 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly.
- Use a spatula to serve. Spoon remaining sauce from baking dish onto the plates, over or around the enchiladas.
- Serve with thinly-sliced iceberg lettuce seasoned with a squirt or two of lime or lemon juice (or vinegar) and a light sprinkle of salt, and guacamole or avocado slices, also dressed with a squirt of citrus juice or vinegar (keeps avocado slices from turning brown before getting the plates to the table). Garnish finely chopped cilantro to make the dish complete!
- Serves 4 (two enchiladas per person).