In most instances, restaurants in side groceries seem like an afterthought, an option for eats provided out of necessity more so than culinary creativity. But in a few select cases, such as Cafe El Rey, 1023 S. Cesar Chavez Dr., that statement couldn't be further from the truth.
Located at El Rey's newest and largest location on National Avenue and Cesar Chavez Drive, Restorante El Rey appears as nothing more than a counter/café style eatery just inside the main entrance. But stop in for lunch or dinner, and you'll see why floods of people stop in for a meal even when they don't need groceries.
The small, cafeteria style restaurant may very well be the best and most authentic Mexican restaurant in town. They make tamales from scratch using fresh corn leaves and corn masa. They fry their own tortillas, preparing foods with a familial passion passed down generations to the point that it is second nature.
The menu, a conglomeration of posters plastered along the far wall, covers all the authentic staples. Familiar enchiladas, tacos and burritos are matched with more genuine and less Americanized protein options like carnitas, beef tongue and pastor.
Everything is made from scratch. Corn tortillas are brought from their local tortilla production operation and doubled on entrees combining fresh, thick sour cream, Chihuahua cheese and halved limes squeezing citrus acidity over tacos, rice and beans. The portions are substantial and combinations innumerable.
Of course they make in-house chips, pico de gallo and guacamole but if you stick solely to the basics, you'd be sadly missing out. Daily changing tamales, meats and salsas coupled with a full bakery of churros, rollos and traditional cakes are just an overview.
During the lunch hour, the 15 or 20 table café is packed with a cultural diversity reflective of the surrounding community as audible as Spanish and English are commonly intermixed.
Opening more than 30 years ago as a source of locally made corn tortillas, El Rey has not only survived but thrived to open four grocery stores, a wholesale plant and tortilla production operation.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Maureen Post grew up in Wauwatosa. A lover of international and urban culture, Maureen received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After living on the east side of Madison for several years, Maureen returned to Milwaukee in 2006.
After a brief stint of travel, Maureen joined OnMilwaukee.com as the city’s oldest intern and has been hooked ever since. Combining her three key infatuations, Milwaukee’s great music, incredible food and inspiring art (and yes, in that order), Maureen’s job just about fits her perfectly.
Residing in Bay View, Maureen vehemently believes the city can become fresh and new with a simple move across town.