La Merenda Is a Taste Treat
You could circle the globe with their wide range of ethnic small plates.
The first time I visited La Merenda in 2007, they were newcomers to Walker’s Point. As my companion and I pulled up in front of the restaurant, she said, “I don’t think we’re going to eat here. It looks like a dive bar.”
“Wait,” I said. “Let me check it out.” I opened the nondescript door and walked through the bar into a large room filled with bright colors and an eclectic collection of antique tables and mismatched chairs. It was love at first sight. I didn’t need to taste the food; I just wanted to sit in the middle of the room to soak up the creativity in that gorgeous space. I later learned it had been transformed by the owners from its former life as a woodworking shop into a restaurant worthy of accolades from almost everyone who has sampled La Merenda’s small plates. As for the “Dive bar” entrance, it was soon upgraded to look like a restaurant.
I’ve long forgotten what we ate that day, but two recent meals remind me that the food still matches the décor: creative, unique, diverse.
On the first of two visits, I eat on the patio, surrounded by planters bursting with flowers. We come for lunch and sit in partial shade under a ramada. I figure my companion’s 14-year-old palate will speak the truth as we dine on small plates designed to share. Our server explains that the food comes out as soon as it’s ready, so don’t expect everything to come out at the same time.
The Beef Empanadas arrive first, four fried, not greasy pastries, filled with braised beef, mushrooms, and potato, along with a cup of chipotle-lime aioli. We smear the aioli on the empanadas, which accelerates the beefy mushroom flavors, making them a textbook example of what an empanada should be.
Likewise, Chipotle Pork Tostadas, filled with braised pork shoulder and red cabbage slaw, pop with crunch from the slaw. Together with the pork and avocado crema, they raise a high bar for tostadas: they’re crunchy, juicy, soft, savory, meaty.
The Pork Belly Crepes are a puzzle. I expect pork belly, fatty meat cut from a pig’s belly. The menu also says “confit,” which means cooked in its own fat. What I find is pork confit, delicious, just not belly.
The house-made Chive Crepe is tender and the porcini cream sauce is the perfect addition to enhance the pork and the mushrooms.
We finish with Tres Leches Cake, a brilliant concoction made with ordinary white cake that’s been soaked with three milks: coconut, heavy cream, and sweetened condensed. To add more decadence, at La Merenda they add whipped cream frosting, plus a nod to healthy, fresh strawberries. I’ve had Tres Leches many times in Mexico. This is the best I’ve ever had: each bite oozes with sweet milk, coconut, cake, and a strawberry or two. Our server says, “If you wish, you can buy a whole cake.” I’m tempted.
The next day when I return for an evening meal with four friends, one of my group orders a coke. That’s when I learn they make their own soda at La Merenda. “That way we can promise no additives,” our server says. They make ginger beer, hibiscus or some other citrus soda, a cola, and freshly squeezed lemonade. We find the hibiscus overly sweet; the ginger beer delicious.
This time we order Empanadas Vegetarianas, served with more of that lime-chipotle aioli. These empanadas, stuffed with spinach, caramelized onion, and cranberries, have a good balance of savory, sweet, and tart.
The superstars of our meal are the Mushroom Ravioli and the Singapore Noodles. The ravioli by itself would be just another pretty pasta dish, but the addition of truffle gorgonzola cream sauce turns it into something special. The subtle truffle undertone says this ravioli is all about mushrooms.
As for the Singapore Noodles, they rock. Everything on the plate works in concert: the shrimp; the Chinese sausage; the veggies; the rice noodles; the curry; the peanuts; the cilantro. We share five ways, but I’m thinking, I want it all.
After one lunch and one evening meal, I have sampled dishes from Mexico, Columbia, Italy, France, Singapore, and a tart from Wisconsin. With a bigger appetite, I could have circled the globe with halibut from Peru, curry from Indonesia, rockfish from Japan, Patatas Brava from Spain, lamb from India, and potstickers from China.
Reservations at La Merenda are mandatory on Friday and Saturday nights. Don’t do what I did and wait until Thursday, or you could be dining somewhere else. They do keep a few tables for walk-ins, however.
When we leave after the evening meal, I look around the garden and say to our server, “I want to live here.”
“She replies, “Me too.”
On the Menu
- Location: 125 E. National Ave.
- Phone: 414-389-0125
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon-Fri, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mon-Thu, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri-Sat
- Walk Score: 83
- Website: http://www.lamerenda125.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/lamerenda125
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/La-Merenda-Milwaukee-175748685866469/
- UM Rating: 4.4 stars (average of Yelp, Trip Advisor and Zomato)
- Menu size: 33
- Price range food (small plates): $5.50-$16.00
- Wine list size (bottles): 57
- Wine list size (glasses): 41
- Price range wine (bottles): $22.00-$115.00
- Price range wine (glasses): $5.00-$11.00
- Beer list size (tap): 13
- Beer list size (bottles): 3
- Cuisine Style: Tapas bar