Milwaukee’s got plenty of European food, but when it comes to Latin American restaurants beyond the typical Mexican fare, options begin to run thin. I’ve visited both Cubanitas, downtown’s flashy Cuban bit, and Sol Fire, the East Side’s pan-Latin answer. Following are my (markedly divergent) reviews of the two best-known Latin American restaurants in Milwaukee.
Latin American Restaurants in Milwaukee: Cubanitas
728 N. Milwaukee St.
Milwaukee, WI 53202
MCTS Routes: 14 and all E-W Wisconsin Avenue service
The beckoning decor – orange walls with a smattering of framed photos, funky gewgaw chandeliers, a long prominent bar – makes Cubanitas seem like a festive restaurant, ebulliently lighting up the streetscape. But the visitor’s first impression of this incomprehensibly popular nook sadly subsides: it’s just flashes of color and empty zest on an artsy strip of Milwaukee Street. With only a handful of Latin American restaurants in Milwaukee, you want the Cuban cuisine here to be stellar: ropa vieja, black bean soup, empanadas. But despite the accolades it has received from local newspapers, Cubanitas was a let-down during my visit.
The problems started with the hipper-than-thou staff who seemed to resent our presence, ignoring our table and treating us like a burden (even though the place was only half-full). Follow that up with lackluster food and portions fit for a Cuban mouse, and I guess that’s how they account for the reasonable prices. My dining partner and I shared a side order of sweet plantains which were probably the best part of an otherwise regrettable meal. I had the roast pork, which could have been pulled out of a discarded burrito and served with the cold beans on my plate. Even the mojo was disappointingly drippy: just some oil barely flecked with kick – and not even enough juice to douse the paltry pork. I don’t drink, but maybe one of their acclaimed mojitos would’ve made the meal go by faster.
Latin American Restaurants in Milwaukee: Sol Fire
2014 N. Farwell Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53202
MCTS Routes: 30 and 15
Sol Fire is caught between Brady Street and North Avenue, and it accordingly attracts a diverse patronage: thirtysomething Shorewoodians, college couples on dates, and a hodgepodge of people on the hipster-professional fence ranging from 20 to 60. They unite at Sol Fire in the name of sangrias and sumptuous food. With a menu best described as eclectically pan-Latin, this cozy spot shines as the best (and only comprehensive) Latin American restaurant in Milwaukee.
Though there’s not much to look at from the patio other than the ugly apartment building across the street, the warmly-colored interior is intimate and understated, ensuring that the attention stays on the food. Sol Fire is definitely more expensive than Cubanitas, but it’s many times better. You’ll leave wishing your stomach were twice the size. I recommend the Argentine beef skewers, served with a palate-pleasing chimichurri sauce and the Chilean steak sandwich, whose hearty meatfulness is balanced with tongue-dancing smoky flavour – not too heavy, not too loud Rumor has it they’re popular for brunch, but my distaste for eggs has kept me away from that experience. During both of my visits to Sol Fire, I’ve found the staff to be knowledgeable and speedy but not dismissive – yet another contrast with Cubanitas. If you’ve got some extra money to spend, Sol Fire is worth it.