You don't have to be Mexican to dish up authentic Mexican cuisine
Bienvenidos a Mexican Dining Week on OnMilwaukee.com. This week, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, we're spicing things up with daily articles about Mexican restaurants, foods, drinks, sweets and more. Enjoy a week of sizzling stories that will leave you craving Milwaukee's Latin offerings. Olé!
Milwaukee is widely known for having great Mexican cuisine, and indeed, most of its restaurants that serve food from south of the border are run by first or second generation Latinos.
But that's not exclusively true. Several of the areas more successful Mexican restaurants are, in fact, owned by non-Mexicans – places like Cempazuchi, Rio West Cantina, COA, Hector's and El Beso.
The iconic, approachable and long-standing La Perla, 734 S. 5th St. is owned by Nick and JoAnne Anton. On the other end of town, the "Mexi Cali" fusion restaurant that is Bel Air Cantina, 1935 N. Water St., is owned by Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro.
Both were the restauranteurs' first foray in Mexican cuisine.
"I thought I was Mexican until I was 6," says Nick Anton, not jokingly. Because of the neighborhood he grew up in, he learned Spanish (and Greek) before he learned English.
"We had really identified where we wanted to do the restaurant," says his wife, JoAnne. "To us, we considered it food, like the Brazil nut is a nut. Mexican food has been assimilated into our culture, and we had very defined familiarity, so it didn't feel like we were doing anything different."
"And we've always loved the Mexican culture," adds Nick, who opened the restaurant in 1995.
"When we first started looking at the place, California-style Mexican came to my mind immediately. A lot of our recipes are very traditional, but we also have Korean tacos and Ahi tuna," says Montemurro.
Was it hard for the restaurants to get the Latino "street cred?" Do Mexicans, for example, dine at La Perla?
"They do," says JoAnne, noting that they're popular both in the "Latin Quarter" of Walker's Point, but also from white, suburban diners. "And we're proud of that. You give your customers what they want."
"I haven't heard anything coming the Latino community saying 'that's not Mexican'," says Montemurro. "Being foodie people, we're more into coming up with interesting things, but just looking at the tacos, more than half of them aren't Mexican.
"But our head chef is Mexican, and he knows the right way to do things. If we did really traditional Mexican things that would sell on the South Side, they probably wouldn't sell over here."
For La Perla, the goal is staying on the cutting edge after all these years in business. The Antons point to an increased tequila selection, their rooftop patio and regular scouting trips to Mexico, Miami and South America to spot trends.
Says Montemurro, "We actually consulted with a friend who is an expert in Oaxacan Mexican food, picking out the flavor profiles we wanted, that would work with having mango tilapia and a Thai pork taco.
"It is fun to play around with it. I've been wanting to try some really traditional things like grasshopper tacos, but I think we stay true with our Oaxacan style salsa ... then pair it with a sweet pork with scallions and carrots."
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