Chapter 8 – Of Time and Motor Control

Fiesta Cafe – 1407 S. 1st Street, Milwaukee

I met Doug at the Fiesta Cafe on a rainy Sunday morning. We were both on our bikes, hoping for less rain after breakfast—rather than the more rain that happened. I tried to remember what had been in this 1st Street/Walker's Point location before—couldn't, but some kind of a tavern is a good bet. It's across from the only bus stop with deco stone benches, as it's the corner of Allen-Bradley. The place looks a bit dingy outside, which is fine with me, because inside, then, it's like Dorothy arriving in Oz, which is like my favorite transformation. There's even a pretty big wall replication of the Allen-Bradley clock, about which there is much lore. It took me awhile (a lot on the menu), but I ordered breakfast, “Huevos A La Mexicana,” a good choice on a cold, wet morning. Also, coffee. This place is bigger inside than you'd think, and busy with Sunday brunch, but there weren't SUV-loads of brunch-yuppies waiting, fortunately, and we felt comfortable sitting for a long, long time drinking coffee. It takes me forever just to finish a breakfast that big, and the servers and bussers were more attentive than a postwar mother-in-law. You won't see one of those angry Yelp reviews (about not being waited on) at this place. Or you probably will, because the people who write those critiques about being ignored are—or perceive themselves to be—ignored everywhere they go—because when you wear your attitude like a bad cologne, astute service workers can smell you from far down Cranky Guy Street. Anyway, this place was kind of a revelation, and it's in a good location for me, walking-wise, so I'm likely to return during deep vortex winter, and if I find something I like better on the menu, perhaps another chapter will be in order. Oh, and then we tried to wait out the rain at the nearby Cermak grocery—we were there for about two hours—I could have had a taco doubleheader that morning, had the breakfast at Fiesta Cafe not been such an astounding stomachful.

Chapter 7 – Should Have Asked

Mexic 103 – 3506 E. Layton Ave., Cudahy

I was over at the Cudahy Library, my new favorite public library, on a Saturday—I love this library, it could be your new hangout. There's a really nice reading area with a lot of windows and light, though the fireplace wasn't going on this morning, and I was trying to warm up. I was on my bike—it wasn't that cold out, but I had underdressed by one sweater, not anticipating the chill from high humidity mixed with the 20 mph wind. I looked on my phone map for Mexican restaurants, and as luck would have it, there were two that were supposed to be open at 10AM, just across the street from each other, and a few blocks from the library. The one, Lala's Place, is in the old family restaurant location I used to frequent—I mean a lot—I have hours and hours of notebook journal writing in there. The thought of going there made me a little uncomfortable, kind of like dropping in unannounced on an old girlfriend and getting no smiles, just her husband with that “is there going to be trouble” look on his face. Their “Open” sign was dark, however, so I was temporarily off the hook—though perhaps a return is in my near future. The other place, though, Mexic 103, was bright and welcoming. I went in like I owned the place—it was empty but for a man and woman sitting at the bar—they did own the place, or worked there. Drama was still on my mind, but I had not previously dated either of them, and everything was cool. She said I was the first customer of the day, and they'd be glad to serve me lunch even though it was 10AM and I'd eaten breakfast just two hours earlier. The TV was silently cataloging Trump atrocities and Spanish language radio was playing lively music—I wished momentarily that I was that person who would dance, even though you're the only person in a room. I asked for “Tijuana Tacos”—steak, chorizo, pastor mixed together, cilantro and onions. The orange rice was shaped into a pyramid—I climbed it, I ate it—and the refried beans were sublime (I'm the person who might like refried beans more than anything). The tacos were on smaller tortillas, doubled up—really good. I destroyed this meal, as if breakfast had only been a hallucination. As I ate, I wrote in my pink notebook and looked around. The place is huge, with a big back room, and an outdoor patio fenced in, and a nice bar with lots and lots and lots of tequila. I imagine this place is happening in the evenings. I thought to ask what “Mexic 103” meant (I mean, the address is 3506, 2019 is the year, and 420 is weed, but 103?), but suddenly felt shy and didn't feel like asking. I figured I could look it up on the internet, later. I'll do that now. Internet tells me that Mexic 103 is “a Mexican restaurant in Cudahy.” I should have asked.

Chapter 6 – The Day After Oblivion

Taqueria La Guacamaya Taco Truck – Wisconsin and Van Buren, Milwaukee

I've been working at crap jobs for 43 years and I still remember exactly what that cheap, microwaved submarine sandwich tasted like in the Cedar Point employee cafeteria the summer of 1976. I bring this up for no reason other than I just thought of it while lamenting that I, for the most part, ignored the food trucks out front of the US Bank Building all summer where I was working. Just in the last couple of weeks I decided to try them all, and now they're all gone. It's only the beginning of October, but I swear the people here, in Milwaukee, love to rush into winter the way dumb humans rush into everything, from their partners' infidelity, to financial ruin, to death. They're still playing baseball—it's way too early to start thinking about the Super Bowl. So even though I had already eaten lunch, when I saw the Taqueria La Guacamaya truck out there, I decided to have second lunch, and I was not sorry. $2.50 each for two al pastor tacos, onion, cilantro, pineapple, wrapped in foil—I ate them at my desk. Not ideal conditions, of course, but ideal food for any taco occasion, and ideal tacos as far as tacos go, just kind of perfectly proportioned simplicity—you know, when you just really notice the genius in something? On this day, yes, tacos = happiness. Not sure when I'll run into this or any another taco truck again, but who knows, maybe in another neighborhood, where they aren't rushing nervously into oblivion. As an addendum to this experience, then, just yesterday at noon the truck was back, so I got three tacos, rice and beans for $10, not a bad price—though I wished there were more beans. I can eat a lot of refried beans. This time, I ate in the employee break-room, a nice one with a beautiful view. You can't beat this employee break-room, yet, I have no use for employee break-rooms. This got me thinking, it would be interesting to do a new review each time you buy something from a taco truck in a different location, because, where are you going to eat your tacos? I remember this time buying tacos from a street vendor in Manhattan, around Hell's Kitchen, and I sat and ate on this stone wall. I never would have noticed that stone wall, but now I remember it like it's the Chez Paul.

Chapter 5 – Good Garbage

Highland House – 12741 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon

This is kind of a fictional outpost in the “North Woods”—though it's essentially Milwaukee (Mequon)—I could ride my bike here—but it does feel out there—and the style is something between “The Islands” (their tagline is: “Where You're Always On Vacation”), and Las Vegas, and sports-bar. It manages to be a family place and a heavy drinking place at once, but then this is Wisconsin. Brent, Doug, and I stopped here once, and I remembered it as “weird”—not sure why—I guess there's something mildly humorous about the layout (it's huge, with various dining areas) and the chaotic, energetic approach. Brent and I returned at 4PM on a rainy Saturday—the hour when you might find yourself the only lonely patron of a place—but it was like Mardi Gras at the Highland House! It again struck us as weird—and again, not sure why. Well, the servers all appear to be high school cheerleaders, wearing knotted open Hawaiian shirts with caucasian-tan colored t-shirts underneath—get the picture? That close of proximity with underage showgirl style makes me a bit uncomfortable, like a bikini charity carwash or something. Hey, I don't make these things up, and even though I'm too old to know better, we're just being honest here, right? Their stated style is: “California, Caribbean, and Mexican”—and while each of those is infinite in itself and worlds apart from each other, you get the idea. Fruity Rum and Tequila drinks, smokin' sizzlin' meat trays, big screen sports, enormous unruly groups accommodated with enthusiasm, tacos. They have a separate gluten-free menu, so it's an island breeze for me to order. I went for pork belly tacos, which would have been perfect with avocado, onions and cilantro, but they were also piled high with chicharron and Cotija cheese and “ranchero” sauce. Garbage, then, but good garbage. I would always prefer some kind of fresh salsa to any kind of sauce. I don't even like the word sauce. Never say “sauce” in my presence again, friends—for the love of God! Thank you. Rice and beans, too—way too much—I took half to go. Ate it all the next day, because I'm a human trash compactor.

Chapter 4 – Scale Model

Colectivo Coffee – US Bank – 777 E. Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee

I often meet people at Colectivo in the US Bank Building atrium for lunch—it's the tiniest version of Colectivo, but it has a big heart. Sometimes Mark, and sometimes Ken, occasionally Aunt Bet, Mr. Renshaw, even Cleo Marville, or Baron von Gletkin. Sometimes they will have a gluten-free lunch item, then later discontinue it, but recently I discovered this “Baja Breakfast Bowl,” which is eggs, rice, black beans, avocado, and salsa—almost a perfect lunch for working—satisfying without putting you in a coma—and I made the executive decision that it's Mexican inspired enough to include on this page—mostly because of the name, of course, which inspired me to later use my i-cigarette break to try to remember what “Baja” makes me think of, and... well, nothing... no band, even. Then I remembered the Baja Bug, a Sixties VW Beetle converted into an off-road dune-buggy, which I loved—but when pushing ten was already too large to fit behind the wheel in any of the (now collectable) scale versions I could afford on my meager allowance (which was more, adjusting for inflation, than I'm making now). Also interesting, I was looking at a map of the Baja Peninsula, which, never having been there, I was thinking I could walk down the coast of in like an afternoon. No! That thing is huge—it's like the length of California! I spend about half my time looking at maps, but I think most people don't look at maps at all, especially since the widespread use of GPS, and that's pretty tragic, because, well, maps don't tell you everything, but without geography, history is meaningless. Really, the most crucial concept for the human race is scale, and as we continue to hone our artificial sophistication we lose any sense of scale—ultimately disastrous, because scale is at the heart of both our glory and our folly, and losing sight of it is essential to the end of us as a species. The larger the sprig of cilantro they put in this bowl the better, of course—it's not just a visual garnish—but it's the avocado that puts this hybrid breakfast/lunch on the map.

Chapter 3 – Luminous Toxin

Applebee's Neighborhood Grill + Bar – 5664 N. Port Washington Road (Bayshore Town Center)

I was out shopping for work apparel with Sara and Mark and seeing how I wear a uniform where I work I was trying to convince them to humor me and get tacos—but since we were at Bayshore Town Center on foot, I suggested the “south of the border” options at Applebee's (full name and address above—certainly the longest name and address of anyplace I've ever eaten). Not surprisingly, the only tacos on the menu used flour tortillas (more of my thoughts on flour tortillas later—right now I'm in too good of a mood), so I defaulted to the “Neighborhood Nachos” with chicken. You can't really mess up a plate of nachos, and these were delicious, but what's with the Neighborhood thing? I guess this all was appropriate seeing how Bayshore Town Center is a fake small town (it's actually a mall) and Applebee's is not really a neighborhood grill, it's a chain restaurant—but at least, when it comes down to it, the food was real, and the people working here were real, and the customers, on this evening, as I looked around, all seemed very, very happy. Almost too happy, like they were drinking the Kool-Aid. But sometimes the celestial bodies, humidity, and sports seasons align, and viola! Or... could it have been the odd blue drinks I saw at almost every table? Which I soon discovered where called: “$1 Adios – Our Take On A Blue Long Island Iced Tea.” A'bee's press will tell you, this version of the teen-drinking favorite is indeed $1 and consists of five types of liquor (one of which, blue curacao, is blue), as well as a trademarked soft drink, and an adjective (sweet & sour). And is also known as the Blue Motorcycle. What they don't tell you is that it's also known as the Adios Motherfucker. What it reminded me of was a blue drink I used to make called “Luminous Toxin”—which was named after the drink the guy ingested in the movie D.O.A. (1949)—which was a slow-acting poison. My drink wasn't actually poison—I'm still here—and I drank a few. But given the movie set superficiality of the whole setup, these drinks could also easily have been called “Luminous Toxin”—and now that I think of it, the drink poor Edmond O'Brien drank in D.O.A. may as well have been called the Adios Motherfucker.

Chapter 2 – Flower Tie Glasses

Taco Bar MKE – 782 N. Jefferson Street, Milwaukee

It seems inconceivable that, having decided to once again write about local tacos, the first two places I'd visit would have the word “taco” and the letters “MKE” as part of their name. Well, taco, okay, but MKE? What's it mean? Mr. Kite of England? My Karaoke Empire? This happened on a day that Mark and I headed to Shah Jee's during lunch hour from our office jobs. As it turned out, it was an Islamic holiday, Ashura, and Shah Jee's was closed! So we then repaired to the next closest restaurant, Taco Bar MKE, which is next door to the Dogg Haus, but connected—I get the feeling they had too much space for Dogg Haus—so decided to split it in half and make a taco joint next door. That's ingenuity, I guess. The problem on this day was that dozens more office workers bounced on the same rails we did and created a perfect storm, the mother of all Taco Bar MKE lunch rushes. That's probably overstating it a little, but it was the longest I've ever waited for a taco. It didn't help that the tacos are all too complicated, too fancy, too expensive, and there are only high tables to sit at. I can only sit at one of those high tables for the time it takes to complain about it. The tacos on the menu board all have goofy names, none of which I remember except for the “Naked Chicken Taco,” because that's what almost all the office workers in line ordered, like they never got to say the word “naked” otherwise. I guess sex sells, even if it's a dead bird. Unfortunately, I can't remember what two tacos I ordered, but they were the only two listed with corn tortillas. At least one had some kind of pork, and they were both fine, tasty, if a little too busy. The thing I do remember is on my check it said: “Flower Tie Glasses”—which confused me for a second, then I realized it was the cashier/server's code to remember which order went to whom. (I was wearing my glasses, see, and a tie with flowers on it!) Something about that kind of warmed my heart, for some dumb reason, and ended up leaving me with a much more positive impression than I would have had otherwise. Sometimes mystery, no matter how fleeting, is paradoxically like a balm for the harsh and meaningless void that is this world.

Chapter 1 – Scarecrow

Taco Stop MKE – 513 N. Chicago Ave., South Milwaukee

I met Renée at the Taco Stop in South Milwaukee near the end of August, a warm day, we sat outside at a picnic table. It's hard to imagine not sitting outside at this place, a former A&W Root Beer stand, but maybe I'll return in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground. She suggested the place because of my taco Instagram, which I then explained was for the promotion of my underground, unlicensed taco franchise that I ran out of my apartment. But I could still write a review, I said—I write reviews of everything, from Steely Dan songs to the last corndog at Octoberfest. As we sat and talked I realized I couldn't penetrate the opaque darkness of her sunglasses. I never thought about it before, but when you can't see someone's eyes it's a bit disquieting. Meanwhile, she could see right through me, as if I was hastily constructed of straw and barely maintaining in the wind. I didn't really run a taco restaurant, and my reviews, particularly the food related ones, had fallen by the wayside. I passed off an old blog, dedicated to the taco, to a hapless pseudonym for whom failure was an art form. But then an idea came to me, inspired by the best inspiration of all: desperation. I'd use this meal to begin a new project, to investigate the local taco scene. But how to not make if feel like reviving the corpse of an old failure? I would have to come up with a radical approach, and soon. But meanwhile, I struggled to remember my carnitas tacos. I attempted the old trick, when eating with vegetarians, to cover the meat with avocado, which typically fools no one—and of course she could see right through me like a old guy whose attempt to drive with the top down only serves to cause his toupee to fly off in the wind. Was that a scarecrow over by the corner of the fence, I wondered? I was going to mention it, but got sidetracked in the conversation, that is, the conversation of life. We rode off on our respective bicycles. I'd have to come back later, I guess, and investigate further, the dining room, the scarecrow, the crows, the tacos.

Introduction

A few years back a friend suggested we try to eat at all the Mexican restaurants in Milwaukee, and while that project fell by the wayside, or never really became a project, I got excited about the idea and never could let it go, even though I'm far from the person for the job. I am not an expert, not a foodie, not Mexican, don't even speak Spanish, not a Milwaukee native, I'm a poor researcher, a worse organizer, have no funding, no car, half an appetite, and as a Celiac, I can't even get to the bottom of any cuisine, except for gluten-free cuisine. Yet, I'm still really excited about the idea, so is there a point at which enthusiasm can make up for all the other shortcomings? Personally, I think so—I'm consistently enamored with stuff that has a big heart, even when it fails on other levels. Or sometimes because it fails, or when it fails because its heart so large it sinks it like a cargo of sentimental rocks.

My favorite Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee was a little place in a smaller shopping plaza called The Happy Chicken, over on Greenfield across from the Blue Kangaroo. (I also just love saying “across from the Blue Kangaroo!”) I only ate there a few times, and it was subtly magical, but it's long gone now. But that's the memory that I'm after—not to replicate it, of course, but to find another place that has so much good going on you almost can't believe it's true. Of course, a place doesn't have to achieve mythical status to be great, and I love places that are just good, and I love the not so good ones even, because there's always something fascinating about a food-making establishment on some level. Two nice things about Mexican food—one is that at its very worst it's still usually delicious, and also cheap, and it's also one of the world cuisines that is naturally gluten-free in a lot of its forms: tacos with corn tortillas, corn, rice, beans, and most of the meat preparations just bypass wheat altogether. Burritos, no, but oh, well, I didn't ask for this genetic dietary disposition, I'm just dealing with it best I can. Anyway, at one point I did set out to visit and taste all of Milwaukee's Mexican food, and I very much failed on every level. Well, I ate a lot, wrote a few things, but eventually the writing part just fell by the wayside. So this is a new beginning, and even though I realize all of the shortcomings I listed, I'm once again excited about trying again.

As with any kind of project like this, part of the fun, and definitely a necessity, is creating a kind of declaration of principals—along with parameters, rules, boundaries, and borders—all those things that will soon be broken, crossed, and revised. My first idea is to not be too ambitious in what I try to cover—that is, each time I visit a place to write about, don't try to do a comprehensive thing, but rather just write about a single aspect or experience, something about the visit or the meal, one paragraph, two or three hundred words. Then, if I visit the place again, I can write about more. The next part of that is to go right home and write about it, and post it that day or the next. That's the best way to write about anything, but easier said than done, sometimes. We shall see! And then, the final defining thing at this point is: What I'm covering—and I'm making this the widest possible definition of “Mexican” food, which is any place that serves tacos or otherwise Mexican influenced food, whether or not it's a Mexican restaurant, and regardless of any degree of authenticity. Also, I'm going to include everything from small solo restaurants to large chains, and also bars, coffee shops, grocery stores, and food carts and trucks. Maybe even the next door neighbor who happens to be running an illegal taco franchise out of their kitchenette.