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Creative Tacos and Serious Tequila

BelAir Cantina comes to Tosa

Jul. 17, 2013
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Nearly three years ago, restaurant veterans Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro—along with new partner Kristyn St. Denis—opened BelAir Cantina at the corner of Humboldt Avenue and Water Street. Johnson and Montemurro also own Balzac, Hi Hat, Palomino, Honeypie and the Fuel and Comet cafés. Now there is a second location for BelAir, the first time this group ever duplicated a restaurant concept. The new spot is in Wauwatosa—an area that is getting more foodie. It’s just steps away from Il Mito and Rocket Baby on North Avenue.

The Tosa Cantina lacks the river view of the original, but is also quite a bit bigger, housed in what was once a car dealership. The bar is in the former showroom and has expansive windows. The décor is spare, warmed up by recycled wood. A glass garage door adds light in the main dining area and the finishing touches are being completed on the outdoor dining patio, which will feature a fountain. BelAir Tosa has the cutting edge of the original location.

The menu is the same as on the East Side. Start a meal with a basket of tortilla chips with a trio of salsas. The mildest is a salsa verde, which is tart thanks to tomatillos. The spiciest is deceivingly tomato red in hue, colored by chiles de arbol. Consider an order of shrimp ceviche ($8.96) with red radishes in addition to the expected tomato, onion, cilantro and lime juice. The shrimp dish is actually quite mild, but the small bowl of habanero oil on the side can add fire. Use it sparingly. Tacos are the heart and soul of the menu, but try the tamales as well. The veggie ($3.45) is filled with black beans and corn, and the spicy pollo ($3.85), with pulled chicken seasoned with arbol chili peppers. The dough is lighter in substance than most tamales sold locally.

The tacos are quite novel. Some don’t stray far from their Mexican roots but others follow a Californian trend where anything goes. For novices thinking of Taco Bell there is the gringo ($2.93) with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and cheese. Most savvy customers bypass these. The barbacoa ($3.49) are prepared the classic Mexican way with beef, chopped onion and cilantro. The beef is slow-cooked with beer, orange soda and Coca Cola, which adds a bit of sweetness. The carnitas tacos ($3.29) are pork with a good pico de gallo. The pork is cooked to a delicious crispness with the occasional hint of fat. The ninja pig ($3.69) has that same crispy pork in a sweet hoisin glaze with cucumber salsa and a bit of shredded scallion. This definitely is for the sweet tooth. The Korean beef tacos ($3.49) have a bulgogi marinade and are served with leaf lettuce, carrot, jicama and sriracha crema in the California style.

There are also good chicken tacos, including the spicy pollo ($2.94) with pulled meat laced with arbol chiles and served with citrus cabbage slaw. A milder taco is the pollo verde ($2.89).

Vegetarians will find seven options. Soy chorizo ($2.95) provides all of the flavor of a traditional pork version with none of the grease. The best, though, has to be the port-queso ($2.97), combining portobello mushrooms with radish, black beans, queso fundido and a splash of chimichurri. The tacos are prepared with corn or flour tortillas. An order of three will include rice and beans—quite a bit of food as the tacos are not tiny. For a small extra charge, any of the tacos may be ordered as a tostada. Don’t overlook the six burritos ($9.23-$10.95) with fillings based on some of the tacos. They are huge.

Both BelAir locations are places for some serious tequila drinking. There are literally dozens to choose from in all price ranges. The bar tab can easily be more than the rest of the meal. The new BelAir is already popular, especially in the evenings. It should be. The tacos are creative and the prices are wallet-friendly.

BelAir Cantina Tosa

6817 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa




Handicapped access: yes


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