By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 20, 2008 at 8:28 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

José  Garza earned the nickname "Conejito" – which means "little bunny" in Spanish -- long before he dreamed of opening a restaurant.

"Everybody calls me ‘Conejito.’ It has always been my name because I do everything fast," says Garza. "Everything."

Garza, now 74, opened the popular Mexican restaurant, Conejito’s Place, in Walker’s Point in 1972. Since then, it unofficially landed on the A-list of underrated Milwaukee establishments and has an almost cult-like following.

Colin Wall, for example, moved to Portland from Milwaukee in 1994, but he remembers Conejito’s fondly, and makes a point to eat there whenever he visits Brew City.

"Conejito’s is part of my Milwaukee nostalgia. I like the earthiness of it, like so many South Side establishments," says Wall, who now lives in Milwaukie, Ore. "I haven’t been back to Milwaukee in two years, but when I do, I’m there."

The Conejito’s menu has not changed since the joint opened, and according to Garza, it never will. It features about 10 options, including the chicken mole (made with white or dark meat and smothered in an ancient Aztec chocolate sauce), tostados (sprinkled with super fine white cheese), steak or chopped meat tacos and chicken, beef or cheese and onion enchiladas.

Obviously, the prices have increased over the years, but not by much. A plate of four bean tacos only sets you back $2.60, the enchiladas are $3.80 and a plate of three tostados are a mere $3.75. How does Garza get away with dirt-cheap prices?

"I’m not hungry for money," he says.

All of the food is served on paper plates, and Garza says that’s because his kitchen is too small for dishes and dishwashers.

Garza moved to Milwaukee from Monterrey, Mexico on Jan. 3, 1957. At first, he worked as a butcher, but later supported himself as a bartender at various South Side bars -- none of which are still open. Before long, Garza made a name for himself as a drink slinger with good conversation skills mixed with a spicy sense of humor, and the customers started asking for him.

"They would come to the bar, and the owner was working, and they would still ask for Conejito," says Garza. "That was when I first thought, ‘I must be somebody’ and I decided to open my own place."

Today, Garza is a common fixture at the Conejito’s bar, and over the years he made friends with people from all over the world, including Cheech Marin, who remains one of his close friends today. Marin, whose photos are framed on Conejito’s wall, visits Milwaukee -- and Garza -- every couple of years. He will be in Brew City -- and likely Conejito’s --  the weekend of Feb. 20, 2009, for a show with Tommy Chong at the Potawatomi Casino’s Northern Lights Theater.

"He used to visit me every year, and we would always drink two bottles of tequila together," says Garza.

Although six Mexican beers are available at Conejito’s, it’s the cheap, strong margaritas that get the most lip service. The signature margaritas are served in short, salty-rimmed glasses with a hint of sweetness and mucho kick. According to Garza, they’re made simply from Durango tequila, triple sec and bar lemon juice.

Like most things at Conejito’s, the margarita recipe isn’t going to change. Nor will the Mexican music on the jukebox. Nor will the décor: a kitschy mix of stuffed bunnies, framed photos, blinking, electric wall hangings and empty pots hanging in plant holders from the ceiling.

"Those used to be the most beautiful plants you’ve ever seen," says Garza. "And every week, I got out the step ladder and watered them, one at a time, and then one week, I decided no more water. So I told the plants, ‘This is the last time you get water. Either you make it on your own or you know what’s going to happen.’"

Fast service is also part of the Conejito’s experience. Sometimes it’s too fast, so diners might want to order drinks and chips with salsa or guacamole (the no-frills environment does not offer free baskets of chips) and wait to order entrees to enjoy the environment a little longer.

Every Sunday, Conejito’s serves brunch, and Garza cooks in the kitchen to make what he refers to as his "famous" huevos rancheros.

"I make the best eggs in the world. I’m not kidding. I mix the eggs with special sauce, pork, beans, rice -- you must try (them)," he says.

Garza says he doesn’t feel any fallout from the struggling economy. During recent visits after work and again on a Saturday night around 5 p.m., the place was packed with people, laughter and cigarette smoke. (Remember, Conejito’s is on the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, Beans & Barley. Some might argue that’s part of Conejito’s charm.)

"From day one, business has been good. It’s always good because I have lots of power from above," he says. "And everyone who comes into Conejito’s becomes my friend. They might first be a customer, but in time, they are a friend."

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.