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El Canaveral’s Mexican Charm

Authentic food in a warm, friendly setting

Sep. 1, 2010
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In the area south of National Avenue, between First and 35th streets, there is no shortage of authentic Mexican restaurants. Instead of following in the footsteps of big, popular venues like La Perla and La Fuente, these restaurants cater to the local Mexican-American community. As you might expect, the food quality and settings vary widely. Among those that stand above the crowd is El Canaveral.

Located in a corner tavern once called the Coventry and later Benjamin Brigg’s, El Canaveral’s building is a classic. On the outside is a rare Schlitz advertising blue-and-white mosaic dating back to the 1890s. The interior has had a post-Prohibition update with a newer bar, leaded-glass windows and wood wainscoting. A cabinet in the bar holds vintage Schlitz glassware.

The current owners have managed to merge Mexican touches with the vintage pub. Bold colors cover the plaster walls and paper streamers brighten the rear dining room. An outdoor patio offers additional tables and another small bar.

The touches that make El Canaveral special are seen immediately. Tortilla chips arrive with no fewer than four salsas. The mildest has a tomato base with cilantro and a hint of hot pepper. The spice levels crank up with the creamy purees, one a verdant green and another—the hottest—with an orange hue.

In addition to basic Mexican fare, the menu also covers some unique items. Sopes ($3), thick corn cakes served with a choice of toppings, are not overly common in Milwaukee. The tinga is pulled chicken meat with a gentle jolt of chile pepper. Ensalada de nopales ($6.95) is also rare in this city. Nopales, or opuntia cactus paddles, have a slightly tart flavor and make for a fine salad. In this case they are accompanied by avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro, white cheese and dried chiles de arbol. The tomato is the more flavorful Roma variety—a touch rarely found at Mexican restaurants.

When it comes to quesadillas ($3.95), optional fillings include flor de calabaza (squash blossom) and huitlacoche (corn fungus). Admittedly, corn fungus doesn’t sound appetizing; instead, think of it as a variety of mushroom with a nutty flavor. It is served chopped in a large homemade tortilla, with the tortilla folded in half to look like an oversized taco. Fillings include lettuce, tomato and sour cream.

Entrees include codorniz a la plancha ($12.95), a Cornish hen coated in a paste of mild guajillo chile peppers and served split. The tender meat falls from the bone. The accompanying refried beans are nothing special, but the white rice has a few pieces of potato in it and the pico de gallo is terrific. The pico is made with tomato, onion, cilantro and fresh lime juice—again, superior tomatoes make a big difference.

When serving birria, most local Mexican restaurants use goat meat. El Canaveral offers birria de borrego ($8.95), which is made with lamb. The boneless meat is a tad fatty, and the broth has a rich mahogany color due to chile peppers. A small plate of chopped onion, cilantro, lime wedges and dried chiles comes on the side. This is a very good birria.

The more common items also show fine touches. The tortilla soup ($4.50), one of the city’s better ones, adds avocado to the chile-infused broth. The camarones a la diabla ($13.95) includes many jumbo shrimp. The diabla sauce, made with dried chiles and in the medium spice range of this sauce, is well worth ordering. Tilapia is hardly a favorite fish, but the mojarra al gusto ($10.95) is a whole fish prepared in a variety of ways. It also is offered “a la diabla,” but the “mojo de ajo” will appeal to milder palates.

El Canaveral has hit its stride. It serves unpretentious Mexican fare in a charming, casual setting. The service is warm and friendly. And in a nod to Milwaukee tradition, the bar continues to serve Schlitz on tap.

El Canaveral

2501 W. Greenfield Ave.

(414) 671-7118


Credit Cards: MC, VS


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