Photo by Chris Kessler
Jose Chavez likes color. But not just any color. Hues, he says, “need to be in your face,” hence the intense shades inside Chavez’s new CafE La Paloma in Walker’s Point. And ergo, the uninhibited hues that coat the building’s exterior. It’s a three-dimensional billboard for a South Side Mexican joint that competes with many others, including the storied La Fuente right across the street.
A Mexico-cum-Milwaukee businessman (who set down local roots in 1983), Chavez donned the restaurateur hat mainly, he says, because he needed a tenant for his building, an attractive, airy structure dating to 1882. Replacing a former nightclub required adding a commercial kitchen. As contractor and designer, Chavez also made the restaurant double as a kind of gallery for his art collection. Some pieces – such as the traditional Mexican papier-mache masks and figures – are works he crafted. The art is an important cultural statement, resonating with pride and a passion for the traditions of Mexico. It’s hard to not feel upbeat surrounded by the vibrant colors and thumping club music.
As for hiring cooks and creating a menu, Chavez looked around the restaurant community for people with a talent for cooking Mexican cuisine and “made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” he says. Mindful of the competition in the area and a niche he believed hadn’t been filled, he played up the vegetarian choices, including a torta with tofu ($9.25), spinach/black bean/blue cheese tostadas ($5), and enchiladas suizas (with vegetables and a cream-based sauce, $11.25). Refried beans in Mexican restaurants aren’t usually vegetarian. The beans at Paloma (Spanish for “dove”) are vegetarian – the pinto beans whole, served stew-like. To round out some of the menu items, you’ll see a slice of watermelon and a salad topped with sliced radishes – items made with more thought than the typical Mexican restaurant puts into side dishes.
The food is well above average, each meal beginning with complimentary chips and two salsas (one thick and nutty; one green-tomatoey and sweet). The chiles rellenos feature a hefty Chihuahua cheese-filled poblano pepper, battered, deep-fried and topped with a chunky salsa ranchera ($9.50). Surprisingly fluffy rice mixed with a touch of tomato paste comes with this and other dishes. However, I’d wanted more intensity from the tomatillo, chiles and pumpkin seeds in the mole pipian that covered my sliced chicken breast ($14.95).
There is a website devoted to the torta Cubana, but Paloma’s version isn’t loaded with ham, beef and bacon, as that sandwich calls for. Maybe that’s why this is better. The warm sandwich ($9.25) is stuffed with black beans, guacamole, queso fresco, jalapenos and choice of meat. Cochinita pibil (shredded, slow-roasted pork) has a nice ratio of fat to meat, lending the sandwich more richness and flavor.
Mixing meat was an unexpected option, and it worked well with the tinga (seasoned chicken) and pastor (roast pork similar in texture to spit-roasted gyro meat), which meld tenderly together on the huaraches. When I see these griddle-cooked cakes on a menu, I have to order them. Sometimes, Mexican cooks make thick, dense yellow-corn cakes. But these are thin, blue-corn cakes ($7.50-$9.25) – so soft that you need to eat them with a knife and fork. They’re loaded up with meat, cheese, avocado, black beans and sour cream.
Chavez also included one of my favorite street foods – Mexican corn on the cob. It’s listed in the appetizer section, but I don’t see any reason you couldn’t have it alongside a burrito, taco or whatever. Elotes con crema is the pretty-looking name for corn slathered with mayo, sour cream and queso fresco ($5). I could eat this with a generous bowl of ceviche Veracruzano ($9) – a citrusy mix of scallops, shrimp and tilapia marinated in lime juice – with warm, fresh tortilla chips, and be happy as a bivalve mollusk.
Boldness suits Cafe La Paloma. Not simply as a visual trademark. It’ll need to stand out from the crowd. It won’t be easy, but if the restaurant hits the mark on quality, consistently good Mexican food, it’ll help.