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Culinary Community
Diners from outside the city are finding a little gastronomic utopia in Riverwest.

Pulse Point: Tacos and a progressive attitude at Cafe Corazón. 
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris.

A year ago this month, a group of troubadouring families, their faces painted and arms filled with handmade art, walked the few blocks from Riverwest’s La Escuela Fratney School to Cafe Corazón. Here, in this curiously shaped building decorated as if every day is Dia de los Muertos, celebrations continued for the actual holiday, known in English as Day of the Dead. Food, live music and an altar for revelers to place mementos of loved ones who’ve passed filled the space. 

The celebration was organized by Corazón’s owners, George and Wendy Mireles, and it’s hard to imagine many other local restaurateurs doing the same, kick-starting this sort of merriment. But it’s not unusual for the Mireleses, who live, work and send their kids to school in Riverwest. George Mireles’ commitment to this community of about 24,000 (roughly 4 percent of the population in the city of Milwaukee) is as potent as the margaritas he serves at Corazón (translated, aptly, to “Heart”). 

 Framed by the Milwaukee River on the east and the Central City on the west, Riverwest is praised for being unpretentious – “up-and-coming and edgy,” asserts Mireles, whose zealous tone proves persuasive – but its reputation has been colored by the perception of crime. According to city of 
Milwaukee records, from July 2011 to July 2012, there were 222 assault offenses, 152 robberies and two homicides in Riverwest. 

Unfazed by the numbers and perception, justified or not, the Mireleses continue to invest in the neighborhood, also boasting of keeping their workforce dominated by Riverwest dwellers. Mireles insists there wouldn’t have been a Corazón without Riverwest. And other restaurant owners share the sentiment.

Less than a mile south of this hospitable hacienda is centro cafe, whose Florence, Italy, storefront feel was carefully crafted during years of restoration. Since opening centro in 2009, owners Peg Karpfinger and Pat Moore have had more than a steady influx of locals lured in for affordable pastas. The streets around the space – like Bremen and Burleigh near Cafe Corazón – are also dotted with cars transplanted from the North Shore, Wauwatosa and other suburbs. Before centro’s back room nearly doubled its space, diners waiting for a table were directed to Stonefly Brewing Co. across the street, Foundation bar on Bremen, and Nessun Dorma, the chill setting for pinot gris and rustic panini, a few blocks away. 

Businesses here benefit from what more than one Riverwester calls the neighborhood’s “small-town” vibe. “Everyone knows everyone,” says Erin Christman, president of the Riverwest Co-op board, but “it’s like a double-edged sword.” Shortly after centro opened its back bar, Christman and a friend walked into a packed dining room with a considerable wait time for a table. “I thought, ‘This is our restaurant!’ ” she says, yet recognizing that the growing attention would help ensure that the intimate little Italian place “sticks around.” 

Supporters point to the area’s diversity and creativity as indicators of urban fortitude illustrated by Ma Baensch herring to Riverwest Co-op’s tiny but tasty vegetarian/vegan café to the old-world-inspired butchers at Bolzano Artisan Meats. Fuel Cafe has witnessed the culinary evolution, opening 19 years ago when there “wasn’t much to eat on Center,” says co-owner Scott Johnson. As other businesses have progressed, so has Fuel, which is now as much a casual hipster sandwich place as a coffeehouse. Continuing to invest in the community, the Mireleses recently opened Impala Cocktail Lounge on Center Street, and Karpfinger and Moore bought the building a block west of centro, the onetime bar/hot dog emporium House of Frank N Stein. They’ve yet to decide what sort of business they’ll open there. 

Riverwest has become a modern microcosm whose history was enriched by working-class Polish settlers and wealthy Germans, who built summer homes along the river in the 1880s.
Close to three years ago, when Corazón served up its first tacos with beef from Wendy Mireles’ family farm in Waupun, Wis., George says he didn’t have visions of running a business that has now grown to 20 employees and a heated patio necessary to accommodate diner overflow. And though he’s a vocal supporter of his neighborhood, he doesn’t mind that Corazón’s fan base extends well beyond Riverwest’s borders. 

“The buzz is out,” he says. “There’s an excitement to going to a place so off-the-beaten path.”

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