By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published May 03, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Bienvenidos a Mexican Dining Week on OnMilwaukee.com. This week, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, we're spicing things up with daily articles about Mexican restaurants, foods, drinks, sweets and more. Enjoy a week of sizzling stories that will leave you craving Milwaukee's Latin offerings. Olé!

Although Los Paisa has been open for a number of years, I made my first visit just a week ago. I blame this, in large part, to the Milwaukee mythology that suggests that all good Mexican food exists to the south of I-94.

Los Paisa is located in a villa-style brick building at 600 W. Brown Deer Road just off of I-43. Upon entering, guests will find a bar and open kitchen to the left, and a cozy dining area with nine tables to the right.

The restaurant is decorated with authentic Mexican art, including black-and-white family photos, paintings of Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead décor. Tables are covered with brightly patterned oil cloth and a gas fireplace toward the back of the dining room gives the restaurant a warm glow.

We arrived at 7:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening. There was a brief wait, since all tables in the dining room were filled, but the hostess indicated that they were clearing out a table for us as she spoke. She led us to the back of the restaurant, where she seated us at a table near the fireplace. The booth seats at our table were cracked and in need of repair and the wooden chairs were a bit wobbly. But, the entire restaurant had a well-worn charm reminiscent of many of the more well-known South Side Mexican eateries.

As we were perusing the menu our server, Lupita, brought out complimentary tortilla strips served with two kinds of salsa and a bowl of refried beans. The first salsa was mild and fresh with diced tomato, onion and plenty of cilantro. The second was a thinner, darker salsa with more chile flavor, but not too much heat. The beans were rich and creamy, with just the right touch of salt.

When Lupita returned to take our drink order, we also requested a bowl of the hot salsa, which was an even deeper, richer red color with a rich chile flavor and a strong, lingering heat – definitely a must-try for true chile-heads.

Fortunately, our drink order arrived right alongside the hot salsa, so we were able to tame the heat and quench our thirst with some of the best house-made margaritas we’ve had in a while.

I’d read about the infamous Xtabentún, a Yucatán anise liqueur made from anise seed and fermented honey produced by honey bees from the nectar of xtabentún flowers, so I was eager to try the Mayan Peninsula Margarita ($6.25), which was described as containing anise liqueur with honey. My dining companion ordered the 1800 margarita with Patron and Grande Marnier ($8.50). In this case, the margarita was house-made with a shot of Patron delivered and added to the drink tableside.

Both drinks were top-notch. The Mayan Peninsula was refreshing and sweet with enough lime and tequila to balance subtle anise and honey notes, while the 1800 margarita delivered on both flavor and quality.

We sipped our margaritas and nibbled on chips and salsa for a few minutes before our server returned to take our order.

We started with the Jalapenos Locos ($4.99), five split jalapenos roasted and filled with Mexican melting cheese. The dish, which reminded me a bit of baked jalapeno poppers, was pleasantly spicy with plenty of sweet peppery flavor and a light saltiness from the creamy melted cheese. The peppers were delicious on their own, but really popped when topped with a bit of salsa.

Upon Lupita’s recommendation, I ordered the Camarones Estilo ($9.90), an entrée featuring nine small grilled shrimp in a spicy cream chipotle sauce. The shrimp, if small, were fresh and flavorful and perfectly cooked. The sauce itself was pleasantly creamy, without being too rich, and delightfully smoky from the chipotle peppers.

The dish came with a side of flour or corn tortillas (I opted for flour), crispy fried potatoes that were delicious when bathed in the creamy sauce, and a Spanish-style tomato-based rice, which would have been unmentionable had it not been for the visible and flavorful bits of carrot and pepper that belied a homemade preparation.

Indecisive sorts will be happy to find, as my companion did, that Los Paisa offers a variety of combination platters, which allow diners to sample a wide variety of the menu. Combination #2 ($7.75) included chiles rellenos, a taco and an enchilada, along with a pork tamal ($2.99).

The chiles rellenos was delicious. The large poblano pepper was breaded in a thick-but-not-cloying batter and served with a very mild ranchero sauce that possessed a meaty – almost gravy-like – flavor. The fried pepper was not at all greasy, the downfall of many chiles rellenos dishes, and contained ample amounts of cheese.

The soft corn taco contained crispy bits of fried chorizo, along with lettuce, a liberal sprinkling of cilantro and plenty of chopped onion, while the mole enchilada was covered in rich, homemade, sweet, dark mole sauce that perfectly complemented the soft corn tortilla and liberal serving of warm pulled chicken.

While the pork tamal was a bit on the dry side, the filling was flavorful and slightly spicy, a nice foil for the sweet corn exterior.

Even with a full house, service was attentive and friendly. We waited for nothing during our visit, and Lupita was at the ready answering our questions and making recommendations regarding our order.

Entrees were affordable and filling. We’re likely to return to try classic favorites like Chile Verde ($7.90), Carne Asada ($8.99) and carnitas ($8.50), along with seafood dishes like Filet a la Veracruzana ($10.50) and Camaron ala Diabla ($9.90).

Los Paisa offers a variety of vegetarian options including fajitas ($8.50), Burrito Vegetariano and a bean burrito ($6.99 and $5.99), as well as vegetable quesadillas ($5.50) and enchiladas ($6.99). In addition, vegetable dishes can be made vegan upon request.

The verdict? Los Paisa serves up a solid assortment of Mexican favorites, along with enough unique offerings to keep regulars interested. If you think you need to go south for good Mexican fare, Los Paisa may have you thinking twice.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.