Mexican Restaurants in Milwaukee: Top 3

Like most large cities, Milwaukee has more than its share of Mexican restaurants. If you’re ecstatic about enchiladas and maniacal about mole, you’ll want to try these three outstanding Mexican eateries. Whether you enjoy traditional tastes or more exotic Mexican creations, each of these Milwaukee restaurants offers a different cuisine and vibe.

1. Cempazuchi
1205 E. Brady Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
414-291-5233
www.cempazuchi.com

Brightening Brady Street with its golden-orange storefront, Cempazuchi Comida Brava produces the best Mexican food Milwaukee has to offer. For an unquestionably authentic meal, Cempazuchi will please your palate without draining your wallet.

Gaily painted walls adorned with folk art set the backdrop for regional Mexican specialties. Cempazuchi tailors its menu to reflect cuisine popular with particular Mexican states. Some dishes are inspired by the Oaxaca state of southern Mexico, including the Enchiladas Oaxaquenas, which are served as a broad stack with a mild red sauce. For seafood lovers, the Tilapia Veracruzana is based on a local favorite in the Veracruz state: grilled tilapia with peppers, capers, and olive sauce.

Vegetarian options are also plentiful, as this is a necessity on Milwaukee’s East Side. Try the Cerca de Cielo, which features corn cake layers with spinach, squash, peppers, and a roasted salsa. And if you’re just stopping in for a light lunch, grab a bowl of Sopa Azteca, a moderately spicy soup from the central region of Mexico served with avocado, cheese, and tortilla strips.

Cempazuchi also features daily specials which sometimes fan out from traditional Mexican cuisine to include Central American dishes, so be sure to ask your server what’s tasty that day. The staff are generally friendly, fast, and eager to serve. Lunches and dinners are both served remarkably quickly, even when the place is busy. Cempazuchi makes a great weeknight date location and also a hopping weekend spot for larger groups of friends.

2. Xel-ha
2301 S. Howell Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53207
414-294-4848

This small, rustic corner eatery in Bayview has some sassy sauces. With a short menu centered around their well-crafted enchilada toppers, Xel-ha is a neighborhood gem that is starting to attract diners from all over the city. You’ll find the interior pleasing and simple, understated in color and a bit woodier than most Mexican-American places.

At Xel-ha, you choose your sauce first and then decide what basic entr�©e it will complement. The fives sauces are:

– Almendrado. This sauce is based on the nuanced almond flavour and a medley of garlic, tomato, pepper, and onion.
– Pipian Verde. Of all the sauces, this one is especially recommended. Beginning with the pumkpin seed, this green sauce also features spinach, onion, and cilantro, resulting in a flavour that is toasty and citrus-tinged.
– Mole Oaxaca. Just because it contains chocolate and peanuts does not mean it’s supersweet. This rich traditional sauce explores the darker, subtler side of our snacky favourites.
– Encacahuatado. Besides being fun to pronounce, this is a simpler peanut, tomato, and onion sauce without the cocoa infusion.
– Chile Verde. This green topper takes gets its moderate kick from the tomatillo and serrano peppers.

The prime reason to visit Xel-ha is to sample sauce flavours, so it is recommended that everyone order a different sauce for their entr�©e. Sides like rice and beans are lackluster, but desserts, including the especially light flan are a sweet way to end the evening.

Xel-ha’s prices are reasonable, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Even when the place is busy, the servers do not seem overwhelmed. It is not unusual to see the owners visit tables to check in with guests, something that never happens at some of the larger Mexican establishments in Milwaukee.

3. La Perla
734 S. 5th Street
Milwaukee, WI 53204
414-645-9888
www.laperlahot.com

You might not think that flashy billboards have much to do with quality Mexican food, but La Perla might challenge that assumption. Around the city of Milwaukee, you’ll see everything from giant paper peppers to old fire trucks advertising La Perla, and the approach seems to work. Residents flock to La Perla from all over the city, and suburbanites head in on weekends for their sample of city life. The restaurant even runs a red shuttle bus (no joke!) from the Marquette University and UWM campuses on weekends. Located just off National Avenue, betwixt the heart of Latino culture and the center of gay nightlife, La Perla is a dining attraction popular with a diverse crowd.

The restaurant offers reasonably solid Mexican food in a trendy but sometimes loud atmosphere. Whether you sit in the animated bar side of the restaurant or in the water-filled window tables nextdoor, La Perla is a spot to see and be seen. If you want to transition from margaritas smoothly into dinner, this place will be perfect. They feature over 100 tequilas to whet your appetite. After enough alcohol, you’ll want hearty Mexican cuisine, and you won’t mind the fact that the flavours are a little mass-produced. Whereas Cempazuchi and Xel-ha attract diners because of their cuisine first and their atmosphere second, La Perla reverses that dynamic.

The food is hot and tasty but relatively unsophisticated. Your best choices for dinner are probably the Steak Ranchero (a T-bone topped with red chile and guacamole) and the Shrimp Fajitas. Avoid the mix-n-match numbered combination dinners unless you want something that barely surpasses the mediocrity of Taco Bell.

Even with the less spectacular food (which is supposedly based on Guadalajara), La Perla is a fun restaurant for its alcohol and its atmosphere. If you get loaded here, make sure you ride the mechanical red pepper in front of your friends.

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