By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Sep 05, 2011 at 9:02 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

A small shrine is tucked into a corner of the BelAir Cantina. Rising against a wall is a collection of potted cactus, Mexican votive candles, a framed representation of the Blessed Virgin and photos of unidentified Latino-looking folks.

It could be a charming decorating touch for a restaurant that riffs on Mexican street food. But looming over the shrine at its peak is a large oak barrel. We are welcome to worship at the altar of tequila.

BelAir takes its blue agave juice so seriously it's trio of owning partners – Leslie Montemurro, Scott Johnson and Kristyn St. Denis of the Mojofuco Restaurant Group – recently traveled to Amatitan, Mexico to taste and select the Cantina's new exclusive private label tequila. Their choice was aged in that sacred barrel now enshrined in the restaurant, and it is the object of BelAir's new Tequila Society.

Yup, you read that right. You can justify your penchant for that south-of-the-border specialty by joining a society.

The BelAir partners bought barrel No. 94 of Herradura Double Barrel Reposado Tequila on July 13 and had its contents shipped in 240 bottles (750-ml.) to the Cantina. The loaded barrel could not legally be shipped to Milwaukee, but the empty version rode along with the bottles.

A $150 membership in The Tequila Society gets you your own numbered bottle from Barrel 94, kept on a display shelf along with your photo, and a passel of perks. The extras include a 50% discount on all flights of other tequilas, selected tacos priced at $2 during lunch, a free tequila class, an invitation for four to the society launch party on Sept. 29, and a Tequila Society T-shirt.

Society members get free chasers for their shots and free fixings for margaritas if they choose to use their tequila in a cocktail. Membership lasts for six months.

Montemurro says she and her partners thought the BelAir barrel was the smoothest of the tequilas they sampled in Mexico. "It was the subtlest and most balanced. It has hints of vanilla, orange and some spices.

"We want people to go beyond margaritas, although they are delicious." The restaurant stocks 100 different tequilas.

The BelAir bar has also created a special mixed drink, the Toloache, using tequila from Barrel 94. The title refers to a legendary Mexican love potion, and the cocktail includes hibiscus, ginger, lime juice, mint syrup and bitters.

If tequila is not your thing, BelAir's extensive beer selection includes a dozen brews from Mexico.

Montemurro describes the Cantina as "Oaxacan style food meets L.A. taco truck." A trio of dipping sauces served to all diners reflects the Oaxacan influence on the kitchen.

Tacos, tostadas and burritos "as big as a small chihuahua" are emphasized on the menu. The fillings and styles lean toward the unconventional. "You're not going to get a big pile of cheddar cheese over anything," the owner says.

"The Korean beef taco ($3.49) is one of our biggest sellers." It consists of sweet and spicy marinated beef, jicama, carrot, lime and an Asian hot sauce. Korean tacos are hugely popular on Los Angeles food trucks.

Among BelAir's other unusual tacos and tostadas are a BLT smothered in avocado salsa ($2.69), an ahi tuna with cajun seasonings ($3.75) and two different tofu choices ($2.69). If you buy three tacos or tostadas, which can be mixed and matched, rice and beans are added at no charge.

Burritos range in price from $8.79 for vegetarian or chorizo with cheese and scrambled eggs to $11.59 for shrimp. Any burrito can be turned into a mixed greens bowl for the same price.

BelAir's daily specials often veer far off the traditional path. Taco and tostada fillings have included brats, shark, calamari, Greek beef with kalamata olives, and reuben on St. Patrick's Day. A rice flour-coated teriyaki beef special with pea pods, carrots, onions and mushrooms offered last week was exceptional.

"We get experimental and sometimes a little silly with our specials," Montemurro explains.

Weekend brunch, served Saturdays and Sundays from 10 to 3, offers chilaquiles ($6.89) and Mexican French toast ($7.29), among other items. The latter is served with plantains and a cinnamon spiced syrup.

BelAir seats about 75 at booths and tables indoors and another 75 on a comfortable patio overlooking the Milwaukee River.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.