Thursday, December 31, 2009
Imagine coming to the end of Sixth Street, just before the graceful, shining white spires of the 6th street viaduct. Imagine a bar/restaurant/banquet hall, bedecked with shimmering vegas-style signs, compete with a sombrero-wearing, mustachioed rabbit who, in some depictions, is sipping a margarita. This is the point at which you probably say to me, "Uh, Joe, maybe Qdoba is still open..." And this is the point at which I say, "I'm never going to Qdoba again, as long as Conejito's Place is open..."
The restaurant is hard to miss, what with easily a few hundred blinking lights and miles of neon surrounding the façade. Virginia St. offers plenty of angle parking, and the area is well lit at night. Inside, you'll find two large bar areas, a small dining area adjacent to one, a larger with the other, and if you're really lucky, José "Conejito" Garza might just be sitting at the bar, smiling and greeting guests as they're seated.
Right away, Andy says to me with all the enthusiasm you can muster for such things, "You're not going to believe the prices." Now, I had heard that Conejito's was inexpensive, but I guess I never realized just how inexpensive it really was. Glancing over the menu, I found prices ranging from $0.75, all the way up to (gasp!) $5. Right away, we ordered chips and guac, and chips and salsa. The chips and guac hit us for $3.95, and the chips and salsa a paltry $1.50.
When our chips and dips arrived, we were all a little surprised to see them on paper plates. Yes, Conejitos actually does have China. No, you probably won't have your food served to you on any. The paper plates are part of the charm, and if that sort of thing scares you, well, you've been reading the wrong blog.
The chips were outstanding: well seasoned, crunchy, but not brittle, and not overly oily. The guac was certainly different from what I was expecting: smooth and creamy, it was less of fatty mash of avocado, and more of a cool, refreshing dip. I know I tasted dairy in there... maybe sour cream? A little cool, a little tangy, a lot lighter than your average guac... it wasn't a strictly traditional recipe, but I like that. A nice, surprising twist to something that is so, so easy to screw up.
The salsa was marvelous. Bright and flavorful, well balanced between tomato, onion, and supporting players... and with more than a little heat. The counterpoint of the hot salsa to the cooling guac was not lost on us: I highly recommend ordering them together. You won't be disappointed!
Next up on the paper plate extravaganza was our entrées:
Lauren: Chicken Enchiladas (3, with beans or rice for a staggering $3.80)
Andy: Beef Steak and Bean Tacos (4, for $4.30)
Myself: White Meat Chicken Molé (a large portion of white meat chicken, beans, and rice for $5)
I also decided, just because it was $1.25, to try a pork burrito:
Andy's tacos were gone before I had a chance to sample them, so all I know is that Andy told us they were fantastic. I did, however, get to try Lauren's enchiladas, which were stuffed with chicken, cheese, and onions -- with more cheese melted over the top. The flavor was dead-on. Pungent onions, tangy cheese, perfectly seasoned chicken, all in a corn tortilla. They were absolutely delicious. And an absolute steal.
My chicken molé was sublime. The molé was dark and rich, bursting with a host of what I can only assume were freshly toasted and ground spices, with that hint of sweetness of cocoa, and the smack of toasted bread crumbs. Mixing the rice, beans, chicken, molé on a warm flour tortilla was heaven, but the chicken by itself shown even brighter. The breast itself was tender and not even close to tough or overcooked, and the amount of sauce on the plate (which was china, by the way!) was just enough for the meal -- not so much you're swimming in it, looking for the meat.
Molé, it seems to me, is like sausage is to my Pomeranian ancestors: we might call it one name, but everyone has their own recipe. Conejito's recipe is a keeper: rich and bright, with all of the cooked all day depth you'd expect, but none of the flatness that comes with slow, long cooking methods.
I was certainly glad I ordered the pork burrito. It was small, nothing particularly pretty to look at, but the pulled pork inside was incredibly flavorful, fatty, and absolutely tender. As a pre-cursor to my molé, it was a an excellent surprise. Just don't expect to make a meal of one!
As we were getting ready to leave (after paying our $26 tab -- mind you, for three people, sodas included!), I asked our waiter for a menu to take with me, and explained to him why I was taking pictures. He immediately introduced me to the owner, José, who was sitting at the bar essentially the whole time we were there, talking with diners, shaking hands, bragging about his "world famous" eggs. I immediately understood what makes Conejito's so special: it was the man behind the name.
Mr. Garza was welcoming with a passion: telling us again and again how much it meant to him to have us in his restaurant that night, insisting that we take some calendars with us, inviting us to try his Huevos Rancheros on a Sunday: his hospitality overfloweth. It became readily apparent that above the stellar food, above the unbelievable prices, that the heart and love that went into the business is what makes it thrive (and thrive it does!). The few minutes spent talking with Mr. Garza were thoroughly enjoyable, made me appreciate my delicious meal all the more. This wasn't just Mexican food: this was a man's life's work.
Conejito's Place has a guaranteed place in our top ten, and I have no doubt it will in yours, as well. We all highly recommend you find some time soon to discover "Milwaukee's Finest Mexican Food."
Some kitschy art, some random stuffed rabbits, a smattering of framed reviews, articles and pictures, and some very light background music. Paper plates for most of the food, and bare tabletops. No dancing waiters, no flaming drinks. Just my kind of place.
Uh, the most expensive food item on the menu is $5. Even I could afford to eat here weekly!
Our waiter was prompt and friendly. We had a fantastic time chatting it up with José and his staff... exactly the kind of evening out I could stand more often.
The Food: A
I think that what makes the food most delicious is the fact it's insanely cheap. Everything easily stands on its own, but food is tastier when it's not making you broke. Simple law of physics.
539 West Virginia Street
Milwaukee, WI 53204