Saturday, April 18, 2009

Riviera Maya

The staff of Eating Milwaukee and I have been jonesing for some Mexican food lately. Living on the South Side, there's no shortage of Mexican restaurants, but a disappointing trend has emerged: heavy, fried dishes, sloppy, sliding portions of insipid refried beans, and gobs of flavorless melted cheese. Yawn.

It's not that we don't like our melted cheese. Trust me. It's just that, after having portion after portion of greasy, cumin-tinged gringo-ized Mexican, our palettes were just looking for something a little different. Maybe more authentic.

Our quest for Better Mexican started at Hector's on Delaware, here in Bay View. Hector's has been a Milwaukee staple for years, and the Delaware location is a more recent addition to the family. After getting a few recommendations from Eating Milwaukee readers, I was pretty sure it'd be a safe bet for our quest.

The restaurant itself is really more of an eat-in bar, and it should be noted that the bar clearly takes center stage in the space. The dining room is half of the building, punctuated by basic two-top and four-top brown formica tables, and a variety of mis-matched chairs.

After browsing the expansive and adventurous menu for a few minutes, our waitress came to take our drink order. After Andy and Lauren ordered, I kindly asked if she'd be able to split our check, so that I could pay separately.

"No, I can't." She replied curtly. I thought she was kidding. "It's busy, and it says so on the menu." I ordered a diet Coke.

We all searched the menu, but couldn't find any mention of this no-check-splitting policy. We quickly decided to leave.

Now, I'm not the sort of person to get up and walk out of a restaurant, but at this point, we had waited to be seated, waited for menus, waited for the waitress, and the dining room was only half full. On top of that, our waitress had lied to us, as there was nothing on the menu about splitting checks.

I'd love to tell you how Hector's food was, but we never got a chance to taste it, and truth be told, I don't think I ever will.

After that rather disappointing rebuff, we decided to head off to Riviera Maya. And I can't tell you how glad I am we did.

Located at that nexus intersection of 1st/Howell/Lincoln/KK, Riviera Maya joins a host of fresh new eateries in Bay View. Immediately upon entering, though, you know it's of a different breed than most of the Mexican fare on the South Side. Bright, vibrant colors, fun, appropriate lighting, and a spattering of quirky décor items makes for a visually stimulating fist impression.

We sat towards the back, next to a gigantic hand-painted mural:

And an apparent bright-red scale model of St. Stosh's Church

I was digging it already.

Riviera Maya doesn't have a big menu. In fact, there's only a few entrées at all, taking up a wee three pages in the tiny menu folder. But don't let that fool you. Giving you the option of meats and sauces, there's an almost limitless amount of combinations to be had, and each one is more exciting than the next... I promise.

We started things out with some Guacamole and chips, which is one of our agreed-upon Greatest Foods On Earth:

The smallish-portion of guac was served with hot, fresh corn tortilla chips, and a red and a green salsa:

It should be noted that both salsas, while strictly a back-up act to the guac, were heavenly. The green tomatillo version was light, acidic, and a nice compliment to the buttery nature of the guac. The red was a thick, dark, murky chile concoction that had all of us scratching our heads: what is that flavor. Smoky, rich, meaty, and spicy all came together in an unexpected sweetness that was a sort of one-two punch with the heat that developed about five seconds after you started chewing.

The guac itself was topped with some crumbled queso fresco, and has just the right amount of pretty much everything. Fatty, buttery, and creamy, with a little salt, a little cilantro, a little red bell pepper. Fantastic.

We also ordered the Quesadilla Chica, a small quesadilla stuffed with a blend of cheeses and garlic-sautéed shrimp. One bite, and I knew I was in for an experience.

The shrimp were tender, buttery, and garlicky, all without ever losing the subtle sea flavor. The flour tortilla was tender, and combined with the fresh pico, was the perfect way to get our stomachs rumbling for the main event.

As far as entrées go, Andy had a burrito filled with garlic shrimp (inspired, he says, by how good the quesadilla was):

Lauren had tacos stuffed with shredded beef:

And I had chicken with a Oaxacan Mole:

All of our meals were also served with a cup of Tortilla Soup:

The soup was wonderful. Tortilla Soup has been kind of a sore spot for me lately, as the last version I had was thin, flavorless, overly hot, with gargantuan chunks of chicken and veggies too big to eat with a spoon and almost necessitating a knife. Riviera Maya's version, however, was sublime. The broth was bright red, tinged with broiled tomatoes, and scented with fried onions, chile, and a flavor that instantly called to mind miso. The lime served with the soup was a nice touch, but I wish I would have tried it without smashing my whole lime in first, as I imagine the acidity I added probably wasn't needed.

Andy's burrito was, as expected, fantastic. The cheeses were mild and flavorful, creamy and rich without being overpowering. The shrimp complimented them perfectly. I don't think I can say enough about the shrimp: I'm fairly sure I've never had shrimp that were both as flavorful and as perfectly cooked.

Lauren's three tacos were served in very fresh, very homemade corn tortillas. They were essentially filled with meat, which is refreshing, and what I imagine to be very authentic, but I did find the meat lacking just a bit of seasoning.

My chicken with mole was superb. The chicken breast was pounded flat, pan-seared, and absolutely smothered in thick, rich, dark mole sauce. The mole smacked of chocolate, with some undertones of peanut, chile, and sesame. There was the familiar and comforting flavor and mouth-feel of toasted bread crumbs, and the silkiness of a fine cream sauce. Combined with the lightly seasoned white rice with peas and corn, and the steamed fresh corn tortillas, it was truly wonderful. I kept wanting to shovel the whole portion in my mouth, but found myself eating slowly, finding every last bit of rice to sop up the sauce, savoring the harmonics of the sweet chocolate and chile.

The staff was thoroughly impressed by Riviera Maya, and was comforted by their overwhelming hospitality, not to mention their willingness to split the check. If you're looking for an alternative to Chi-Chi's era Mexican cuisine, Riviera Maya is a strong starting point.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A
Funky, fun, with a nod towards traditional Mexican design and color, but still recognizable as a contemporary American restaurant. Be careful, you might forget you're still in Milwaukee.

Prices: B
Prices for entrées range from about $9 to $15. Appetizers are a little steep, starting at $4 and going up to $9. This isn't an every-day affair, for sure, but a wonderful treat. I'm comfortable saying the prices are justified, considering what you get.

Service: B+
Servers and staff were attentive and personable. No complaints. Oh, and they had no problem splitting the check. Ah-hem, Hector's.

The Food: A-
While not brimming with options, the menu is exciting without being intimidating. A few old favorites, a few more intriguing options. Lots of big, authentic flavors all presented well and portioned just right.

The Details:

Riviera Maya
(414) 294-4848
2257 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53207
view the restaurant's site and menu here

Riviera Maya on Urbanspoon

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