By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 19, 2011 at 9:05 AM

When Charro executive chef Aaron Bickham travels, he eats.

He wants to get the most out of a visit and he knows you can taste the culture in the food. So, when he began to reimagine the menu at Charro's two locations -- 729 N. Milwaukee St., Downtown, and 17800 W. Blue Mound Rd. in Brookfield -- his mind wandered to his travels.

"I really just tried lots of street food everywhere," he tells me over lunch at the Charro in Milwaukee.

"That's the culture of the place you're at. If you're in a Latin neighborhood, that's what they're eating. It's cheap and it's fresh. I just kind of wanted to street food but do it in an elegant way. So, every time I traveled, wherever I went I ate as much street food as I could. Sometimes I really got inspired by things. When I lived in New York, I lived in a really Colombian neighborhood, I lived in a really Greek neighborhood. I lived in a Haitian neighborhood and I tended to eat where I lived."

He recounts tales of Haitian cooks who took traditional French dishes and added regional ingredients to create something new, but something rooted in tradition. And that's what Charro's new Central and South American and Caribbean-inspired menu does, too.

"I have a traditional French background and I did a lot of rustic Italian cooking," says Bickham. "I worked at Lake Park Bistro for a number of years. So, I always do everything with the French techniques. So, I find that flavor, but do it with a little bit of a classic technique."

The new menu -- which helps re-inaugurate Charro after its brief closure for a bit of a visual freshening up -- is heavy on tapas; not just appetizers but real tapas like Ropa Vieja from Cuba and Caribbean-inspired Pescado Fritos -- and entrees from Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Haiti, Guatemala, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico. A white tuna sope will knock your socks off.

But they often come with a twist. Those Pescado Fritos are Lake Erie perch from Sweetwater Organics.

"Why don't we use stuff that we have here and that Wisconsin people grew up with and are used to," asks Bickham, rhetorically. "I kind of sneak in these flavors these things that people are used to. Like perch, you'll never see it in the Caribbean but we see it here all the time. So, let's do it in a Caribbean style. Then people are like, 'wow, that's great.' They really get that (new) flavor by something they've eaten their entire life."

Bickham is committed to local ingredients and estimates that nearly half the ingredients he uses at Umami Moto -- where he also serves as executive chef -- are local. That number at Charro hovers around 20 percent but his goal is to ramp it up quickly.

"It's the best way to eat," he says. "You're helping not only the local farmers and the whole community, but you're helping yourself by what you're putting into your body."

Some entrees -- like the Venezuelan asado negro, with its fork-tender brown sugar-braised brisket and polenta-style cornmeal and the Peruvian cordero with braised lamb -- are hearty dishes served in portions that encourage sharing. They won't seem at all unfamiliar to fans of rustic European cuisine.

At launch, both locations will share the same menu. However, Bickham expects that can soon change, based on customer feedback at the restaurants, which have diverse and distinct clienteles.

"We're going to start with the same menu but you can morph it into any direction," he says. "You have to let the location, the building and your clientele speak to you and give them what they want. I have it safe now, there's a little bit of everything. Let's see what they like and what direction they want to go in.

"There's tons of really rich and hearty entrees that I think Brookfield is going to like more. There's a lot of unique and different appetizers and small plates I think they'll like more Downtown. We can kind of tweak it as it comes. I think they'll definitely be different. I think that this is just a nice starting point and then we'll see. I think by summer there will probably be a 30 percent change or maybe we'll keep the menu we have. We have to let the people speak to us."

After a pair of invite-only sneak previews, both Charro locations will reopen to the public with the new menu on Saturday, Jan. 22.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.