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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Dining

Lala Guerra opened her own restaurant after working at Conejito's Place for over 25 years.

In Dining

The shrimp fajitas at Lala's Place coupled with a lime margarita.

In Dining

Benito Utrera and co-owner Pepe Santa Cruz are the "brains of the kitchen operation."

In Dining

The menu cover at Lala's Place practically says it all.

In Dining

Lala's Place is located at a busy intersection in Cudahy.

Former Conejito's barkeep hops into Lala's Place


When "Lala" Guerra left León, Guanajuato, in Mexico she didn't expect to open a restaurant with her nickname on the door; as she said in an interview last year, she came to Milwaukee seeking the best possible medical care for a daughter born with spina bifida.

Guerra got her daughter the attention she needed and also began working as cook, server and bartender at Conejito's Place in Walker's Point, where she became a beloved figure, known for calling customers "honey" and "sweetie" and taking care of them with strong margaritas.

Things change, always, and dreams grow out of new circumstance and opportunity. Over 25 years after making a new home for her family, Guerra has spread her wings again with her new Mexican restaurant Lala's Place, 3470 E. Layton Ave. in Cudahy.

But Guerra is not alone; Lala's Place is a family affair. Her son, Pepe Santa Cruz, co-owns Lala's Place and together with mom has created a menu that's simple and wide ranging. This isn't Conejito's food.

We stopped in on a Tuesday evening and were served a small pitcher of margaritas without needing to ask – these small pitchers were just one of many things that endeared Lala to us when she was tending bar at Conejito's – and ordered the shrimp fajitas and two chiles rellenos.

The vegetables in the fajitas were nice and soft but not overly so and the sauce was thick and flavorful – not too spicy – with the side of guacamole a standout, chunky and creamy deliciousness.

If you're looking for spicy, then Lala's Place has several excellent options for you, including two of the three salsas served with the complimentary chips.

The stuffed peppers were overall good; topped with a salsa ranchera that was better than most in the city and served with rice, beans, white cheese and choice of flour or corn tortillas.

House specialties include "Lala's Special," a large burrito for $8.25 with choice of steak or ground or shredded beef and two specials that carry son Pepe's name: the Pepe's Torta Dinner and Pepe's Taco Lomo.

Guerra says the meat choices in the Pepe's specials of steak, ground beef, chicken or al pastor are so soft they melt in your mouth and that you must have corn tortillas with them to complete the taste experience.

Also try the bistec con salsa verde, slices of steak with choice of flour or corn tortilla.

There are also many items on the children's, appetizer and a la carte menus with staples such as quesadillas, tostadas and enchiladas. Children's items range from $2.75 to just $3. Dinner plates include enchiladas and chimichangas. A nice T-bone steak that comes slathered in the house salsa ranchera is on the menu for $10.75.

Breakfast starts at 11 a.m. and includes classics like huevos rancheros and huevos con chorizo for $5.75. A scrambled eggs and ham dish is available as well as huevos a la Mexicana, which is scrambled eggs with jalapenos, onions and tomatoes and served with rice, beans and choice of tortilla.

In addition to the margaritas, which are only $3.50, domestic and Mexican beers and an assortment of vodkas and tequilas, Lala's Place carries the line of Black Bear Soda products and the menu also lists agua de horchata, white milk, orange juice and Mexican coffee.

Guerra and Santa Cruz have been working on their recipes for a long time and had been looking for a suitable place to open their restaurant for a few years. They didn't want one too small nor too big. The former La Salsa space was a good fit.

"We like it," says Guerra.

Guerra and Santa Cruz opened the restaurant quietly on March 1, but it's been anything but quiet ever since with a grand opening party on March 31 and steady stream of customers from morning 'til night.

"I work a lot of hours, but I'm used to it. I worked seven days a week at Conejito's, too," she says.

Guerra remembers her customers from Conejito's. She gave us hugs when we came in and remembered we like extra salt on the rims of our margarita glasses. It also appears she's making many new friends in Cudahy, calling a couple of guys who clearly came over from a local industry together to have dinner her "brothers."

More hugs and conversations with new acquaintances kept occurring even as Lala's Place began to fill and the carry-out orders got piled by the door.

Guerra says carry-outs have been an even bigger part of business so far.

Guerra, Santa Cruz and the small, close-knit staff at Lala's Place provide a warm and comfortable dining experience for everyone. Even though they were busy and almost never stopped moving, it's clear they're happy with what they're doing.

Lala's Place only has six employees, although sometimes Guerra's daughter and husband help out. The staff includes Benito Utrera, Aurelia Rodriguez and Ana Verdin. Guerra says Santa Cruz and Utrera are the "brains of the kitchen operation."

Rodriguez was a server at Conejito's with Guerra. Verdin was in Hawaii on a three-and-half-week vacation when Lala's Place opened – they held the position for her – and she's been hard at work ever since she got back.

When you go to experience the food and good vibe at Lala's Place, with its old school bar / lunch counter in addition to the booths and tables, you might also see if Guerra will offer you some "medicine."


Talkbacks

FFDan | April 18, 2012 at 10:57 a.m. (report)

Great service, great food...it was so nice to see Lala smiling again. Can't wait to go back.

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