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One Sunday afternoon, I gazed on tables of Asian-American teens, shoulders hunched, heads bent over bowls of soup that at this particular restaurant — Phan’s Garden — is known as “pho.” The warm, comforting meal, eaten with plastic chopsticks, appeared to be their ritual. At a Mexican restaurant, the ritual might be caldo de pescado […]

One Sunday afternoon, I gazed on tables of Asian-American teens, shoulders hunched, heads bent over bowls of soup that at this particular restaurant — Phan’s Garden — is known as “pho.” The warm, comforting meal, eaten with plastic chopsticks, appeared to be their ritual. At a Mexican restaurant, the ritual might be caldo de pescado — fish soup. At a Middle Eastern place, it could be bowls of bright-orange lentil soup.

Gastronomic diversity is all around us, but to jump in and be a participant is numbing when it feels like taking steps on billowy air. You don’t know what to eat or how to eat it when it shows up in front of you. Consider me your eyes, ears and hands. And imagine this guide as your education in eating ethnic at nine great restaurants. Even if you descend on ethnic food with the courage of a skydiver, you’ll find some tips for getting more out of your culinary adventures.



AFRICAN

African Hut 1107 N. Old World Third St., 765-1110

SETTING: a jungle theme created by leopard-print walls and leafy plants.

FOR EXPLORERS: The mandingo warrior platter combines three entrées, such as bell pepper-studded jollof rice (an African jambalaya), the mild peanut chicken stew and rich stewed spinach.

PERSONAL FAVORITES: zanzi (sweet potato) fries and ice cream sundaes topped with Grand Marnier-stewed apples — they’re called “mindy-mindy.”

OBSTACLE: The bartender doubles as the server. Translation: You’d better not be in a hurry.

BOTTOM LINE: This place has come a long way in 10 years’ time.

ENTRÉES: $9.50-$14.75.




PUERTO RICAN

El Farol1401 W. Washington St., 647-1899

SETTING: dining room adjacent to a Puerto Rican grocery store; patterned booths and tables in island-themed room reminiscent of a Greek family-style restaurant; helps to know Spanish, but the server will quickly revert to English when she sees a blank look.

MUST-TRIES: pernil asado (tender shredded roast pork), sweet fried bananas and yellow rice and beans.

ACQUIRED TASTES: fried pork chops, dried cod, tostones (very dry fried plantain patties) and octopus salad.

THE CRUX: really authentic food.

ENTRÉES: $5-$6.50 for most entrées.




SERBIAN

Old Town Serbian Gourmet House 522 W. Lincoln Ave., 672-0206

SETTING: massive low-ceilinged dining area with a mix of oil paintings, old gewgaws, crystal chandeliers and bouncy Eastern European music.

YOU GOTTAS: Christen your meal with a Czech lager and the pro bono basket of crusty white, Sciortino’s-like bread served with two spreads — eggplant relish and kajmak, a cream/cheese blend. Next move: the salad combo of marinated roasted red peppers and chopped tomato, green pepper, onion and crumbled goat cheese.

CLASSIC ENTRÉE MUSTS: The best chicken paprikash in town and a good version of burek — a buttery pie made of many phyllo layers and filled with ground beef or spinach and feta cheese.

CONCLUSION: Three Brothers has the old Schlitz tavern charm; Old Town has the food.

ENTRÉES: $15-$25.




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JAPANESE

Japanica4918 S. 74th St., Greenfield, 281-9868

SETTING: open, airy blond wood room with two bars (one for sushi) and several teppanyaki tables that feature a hot cooking surface. Booths offer privacy — great when you’re dining alone.

TOTAL VIRGINS: “safe” foods like miso soup, California rolls (crab, avocado and mayo nestled in sushi rice and seaweed), shrimp or chicken tempura (the batter is crisp and marvelously light) or yose nabe, a hot seafood/vegetable soup.

SLAVES TO THE RAW: the sushi regular (seven pieces of raw fish laid over sushi rice) or sashimi regular (12 pieces of raw fish, with a bowl of rice). Also seaweed salad, spicy tuna roll and miscellaneous à la carte sashimi. My favorites: salmon, fatty tuna, shrimp and striped bass.

THE NITTY-GRITTY: quality food without the stabbing prices of Downtown competitors.

ENTRÉES: $7.95-$25.95.




VIETNAMESE

Phan’s Garden1923 W. National Ave., 384-4522

SETTING: pink vinyl chairs, a fish tank and fake flowers.

NEWBIES: Avoid the Chinese menu. Beginner-friendly Vietnamese dishes include fresh shrimp- and pork-filled rice paper rolls (served with peanut sauce) and generous bowls of pho, a soup brimming with translucent noodles and chicken or beef, plus a plate of ingredients like cilantro, basil and fresh lime that you add to season it.

RISKTAKERS: Order hot and sour soup with shrimp, mushrooms and lemon grass; lip-tingling chicken with basil leaves; or spicy lemon grass fish — golden fried whitefish coated with minced chile and sour/citrusy lemon grass.

FIRST AID: Servers can lead you through the fog with good menu suggestions. Hot dishes are flagged with a chile pepper symbol.

DOWNSIDE: Service can be slow, and the restaurant could be cleaner.

ENTRÉES: $4.50-$12.95.




MEXICAN

Rey Sol 2338 W. Forest Home Ave., 389-1860

SETTING: Rooms open one into the other, beginning at the bar with its cluster of tables, to a quieter back dining area; most of the place is wrapped in colorful, uniformly shaped laminated pictures.

WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE: A plate of complimentary house appetizers starts every meal (mini gorditas, empanadas, chimichangas and ceviche); paella is served on Friday and Saturday nights.

WHAT IT DOES BEST: cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style shredded pork), mole poblano with chicken, enchiladas with avocado and almond sauce, vanilla flan.

CONCLUSION: There’s a lot of mediocre Mexican food out there. This joint just works harder.

ENTRÉES: $9.25-$19.95.




EAST INDIAN

Saffron Indian Bistro 17395D-1 W. Blue Mound Rd., 262-784-1332

SETTING: A single saffron-colored, minimally accessorized room seats 60 max. Elegant copper serving dishes make the food look regal.

PROGRESSIVE TOUCHES: Owner Vijay Sadhu’s menu has evolved beautifully since the restaurant’s March 2004 opening to include Bombay lobster masala and tandoori rabbit. The $7.95 lunch buffet is often met by a line of customers out the door (Tues-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.).

NEW RECRUITS: Try the creamy, saffron-laced butter chicken, paneer Hariyali (homemade cheese in creamy spinach sauce) and masala dosai (thin mashed potato-filled pancakes eaten with coconut chutney and sambhar, an Indian soup).

ADVENTURE SEEKERS: Go for sautéed Karavali prawns (seasoned with curry leaves, chiles and coconut), goan aloo vindaloo (potatoes in tangy, spicy tomato-vinegar sauce) or kachchi mirch ka gosht (lamb stewed in green peppercorn sauce and caramelized onions).

UPSHOT: Saffron Indian Bistro sets the bar for local Indian food.

ENTRÉES: $4.50-$18.95.




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THAI

Singha Thai 2237 S. 108th St., West Allis, 541-1234

SETTING: blasé strip mall space filled with dark lacquered furniture.

NEOPHYTES: cold spring rolls in plum sauce, pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles in nutty fish sauce), mussamun curry ordered mild (beef and potato cooked in coconut milk sauce) and steamed tapioca with coconut.

VIRTUOSOS: Just up the level of spice to medium or higher. Start with tod mun (spicy deep-fried fish cakes dipped in cucumber sauce) or yum woon sen salad (skinny clear noodles wound around baby shrimp, chicken, lime juice and, if you’re game, powerful red chiles). Follow with kang dang curry (a fiery, creamy coconut milk curry) and Racha chicken (battered chunks of fried meat served in a Tabasco-y red chile sauce).

CAVEAT: Service isn’t strong, which sometimes means an inattentive waitstaff.

OUTCOME: holds the lasso around quality and variety.

ENTRÉES: $7.25-$17.95.




MIDDLE EASTERN

Aladdin 202 W. Wisconsin Ave., 271-9870

SETTING: has made an attempt to spruce up the sterile-looking former franchise restaurant space it moved into last year by adding lace curtains, brass urns and photos of sites like the Pyramids of Giza; although you can dine in, it’s counter service.

HAVEN’T BEEN HERES: This location isn’t like the old one — better to order your food to go (parking is a hassle anyway). Or if it’s lunch and you’re somewhere Downtown, Aladdin will deliver.

BULL’S-EYE EATS: yalanjee (rice-filled grape leaves), falafel with tahini sauce and two entrées that have become Aladdin classics: Ozzie lamb (baked lamb shoulder mixed with fluffy basmati rice, caramelized onions and roasted almonds) and chicken curry (chunks of breast meat stewed in tomato-curry sauce with carrots, potatoes and golden raisins). And flaky, intensely sweet baklava for dessert.

GIST: best Middle Eastern food in town.

ENTRÉES: $6.95-$10.95.

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