Milwaukee has struggled over the years in supporting a local barbecue joint. But now, years after the ill-fated Q shuttered its doors and Silver Spur resurrected itself in Elm Grove, two local entrepreneurs decided to try their hands at Southwest inspired barbecue on Old World 3rd Street.
The Durango BBQ and Grill, 1007 N. Old World 3rd St., opened in January after giving the old Capone's Grotto space a quick and clean facelift.
Under the watchful eyes of former Three nightclub owners Jon Gustavson and Phil Kuto, along with the aid of barbecue chef Andy Jebson, Durango pairs a warm bar environment with moderately priced dinner options, the ideal blend for a pre-game or post-concert crowd.
Some of Gustavson's and Kuto's club days mentality transfers well in the restaurant, mostly in the form of adept service and a light-hearted environs that makes you feel welcome and ready to drink (two for one drink specials on a recent Wednesday evening didn't hurt, either).
Prices are palatable, and the owners are proactively smart about the area's parking challenges -- they'll deduct $5 from your dinner bill if you have to park in the pay lot across the street.
Take out, delivery, dine-in and catering options are all available, and Durango sells its standard barbecue sauce and Sweet Sonoran Heat sauce to go.
Other facets of Durango still need some honing, including a sub-par beef brisket, but the restaurant knows its focus: all homemade Southwestern style barbecue with a cumulative-style heat; and it sticks to that focus in atmosphere, menu and concept, and market it all well.
In an industry where too many restaurants try to be all things to all people, finding and committing to a niche is half the battle to succeed.
Durango's one-page menu offers up wings, chili, barbecue, sandwiches and burgers, with most selections hovering around $10 including a choice of side.
We sampled the Texas red chili (cup, $4.95, bowl, $8.95) winner of Hunger Task Force's 2010 Chili Bowl Cook Off, and found it surprisingly hot, in a most pleasing way. Chunks of beef brisket were interwoven with spicy peppers and bits of bacon for a rich and heated mouthful in every bite.
A pulled pork sandwich ($7.95) was respectable, as well. While it may seem like it should be an easy sandwich to produce, pulled pork is one that falls flat in many restaurants -- either overcooked and dry, or over-sauced and mushy.
Durango's had neither issue, with a heap of lean shredded smoked pork piled high within the bun, and dressed with just enough barbecue sauce to make it moist without being overly drippy.
The seasoned fries, however, proved too salty for both me and my dining companion, who normally feels the need to add extra salt to French fries. The sodium content in Durango's seasoning salt was just a bit too high to be enjoyable, and our fries went uneaten.
Durango's beef brisket ($8.95) appears only in sandwich form on a bun (rather than the standard platter presentation), and had an odd textural element I'm unaccustomed to in brisket.
Unlike the meaty chunks in the chili, it was very near deli-style meat thin, and had a dry, almost leathery mouth feel. But once I got past the texture, I found the flavor actually quite good, with smoky undertones and just a bit of latent heat. Mac 'n' cheese was an interesting side, with more heated Southwestern style seasoning (think salt and heat, almost like chili powder and cumin meet seasoning salt) and a very thin cheese sauce that did not reflect the cheddar, Romano, Asiago and pecorino cheeses that made it up.
The flavors were interesting (and hot) enough that I kept going back for another taste, even though it lacked the depth I usually look for in restaurant macaroni and cheese.
Notably, too, Durango offers an extensive specialty drink list with variations on old favorites like a Habanero-infused tequila margarita ($8), and a herba buena ($8), a mojito made with tequila in lieu of rum. This cocktail section makes up a full quarter of the menu, emphasizing that whether you're there to eat, or to drink, Durango can fit the bill.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.