After months of threatening, we finally stopped by La Caribeña, 1704 S. Pearl St., for dinner and drinks. Located in a triangle-shaped building painted bright red, La Caribeña is easy to spot.
We were immediately pleased with the environment. The decor, we learned, is modeled after neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic with many of the seating options inside grass-roofed cabanas. Brightly painted walls, Spanish music and whimsical bird sculptures contribute to the warm, festive vibe.
La Caribeña is a family affair. Owners Ismael Roldan and Edwin Ordonez are brothers-in-law and Ordonez’s wife’s mother and sister run the kitchen. The women are from the Dominican Republic, so many of the dishes are from that region, with a few Colombian and Puerto Rican offerings, too.
Ordonez noted a lack of Puerto Rican, Colombian and Dominican restaurants in Milwaukee. In recent years, Puerto Rican restaurants El Falon and Nina’s both closed.
"We are serving a community that had no where to go," says Ordonez. "And introducing new cuisine to people who haven't tried it before."
All of the menu items are reasonably priced, with meals ranging from $8.50 to $13.95. Appetizers include tostones – traditional fried plantains served with mayo ketchup – along with yuccas fritas – fried cassava – and empanadas.
We liked how thin the plantain slices were - thicker than potato chips but not too thick or mushy. They were lightly breaded and fried and came out very warm.
The plantain appetizers were also served with a hearty cup of soup, gratis, of stewed pollock with noodles and potatoes.
The menu features about 15 different dishes. We tried the mofongo con camarones, garlicky mashed fried plantains topped with shrimp and tomato sauce and Puerto Rican fried chicken and rice.
All of the food is made fresh daily, which is evident in the taste and appearance. We particularly enjoyed the mashed garlic plantains and the abundant serving of freshly cooked shrimp. The fried chicken was the way we prefer: lightly breaded and fried, but did not have a lot of meat on the bones. The rice with black beans was very good, fluffy, not dry, and flavorful.
There are also a variety of sandwiches on the menu, including the pernil, which is a stewed pork shoulder with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and mayo and the jibarito, a green plantain sandwich that can be ordered with steak or pork shoulder on it as well.
The dessert menu includes vanilla flan, limoncello cake and cheesecake.
High points of the drink menu include an extensive Latin American beer selection, including a Dominican pilsner called El Presidente. Also, the margaritas are always two-for-one and are made from both a mix or from scratch.
Ordonez’s life story is inspiring. Born to a poor family, he graduated from a Colombian high school at the age of 15, but was unable to find work or continue school, so his mother helped him and his sister move to the United States – hoping they would have a better chance at success.
When they arrived in the United States, the siblings, who were 16 and 17 at the time, did not speak English and had very limited resources. They moved in with an acquaintance of the family who charged them a few hundred dollars a month to live in an unheated basement.
"I thought, maybe, that was how people lived in Wisconsin," says Ordonez, who had never seen snow prior to moving here.
"I loved (snow). The first time I saw it, I ran outside and started ‘swimming’ in it," he says.
Ordonez, who started working for a man with a construction business, quickly realized his living situation was messed up. His boss helped Ordonez and his sister move to a South Side apartment where they were given furniture and household items from neighbors.
Although he had a diploma from Colombia, Ordonez wanted to graduate from an American high school and so he enrolled at South Division High School. It only took him one year to complete high school.
"It was really nice there," he says. "I met friends, I learned some English."
Ordonez then went to work at a variety of restaurants, including Las Palmas and the Olive Garden, and took English classes at MATC.
Eventually he landed a job in financial services and learned a lot about saving and investing money. He also got married and had a daughter.
"I really liked my job, but I wanted to open my own business," he says.
When the opportunity to open the restaurant came along, Ordonez went for it even though he was warned by family members of the risk.
"I did it anyway," he says. "I told my mom, ‘I’m young. I started with nothing. I’ll start over again if I have to."
Ordonez teamed up with Roldan, who is from Argentina, and the two men completed all of the build-out themselves.
"We built the bar, the cabanas, everything," he says. "I learned how to do all of the electrical work, too."
The two men plan to open a second business this summer near 16th Street and National Avenue.
Because Milwaukee diners are familiar with Mexican food but very few other Central and South American cuisines, it has been a challenge to reach out to diners beyond the community. However, word of mouth has attracted more and more customers from Walker's Point and Bay View and Ordonez says he is pleased with the restaurant's success.
"We’re doing very well," he says. "We’re creating jobs. We have a lot of ideas."