Eaters stuck in the usual belt of East Side/Downtown/Bay View dining could well strike out on perhaps the most colorful and delectable aspect of Milwaukee’s culinary heritage: Mexican. For a city with more than 100,000 Latino residents, there’s actually little in the way of authentic south-of-the-border fare in any of the oft-covered “happening” food hot spots. (La Perla doesn’t count.) By contrast, in Chicago even the trendiest, most gentrified neighborhoods seemingly never fail to offer legit tortilla-wrapped meats at all hours of the night.
For this, Guanajuato is a welcome gem of a local neighborhood joint. It also happens to be a perfect microcosm of what’s happening now in Bay View—the newly hip meshing with the staid blue-collar. The A.V. Club spent a recent Thursday night checking in with the always-busy Lincoln-and-Howell stalwart that, in very big print, boasts “the best steak tacos in town.”
The space: Credit G.T.O. (as Bay Viewers refer to it) with doing the most with what it has. Sombreros, Mexican flag-colored lights on the ceiling fan, fake greenery, and the relentless thump of tuba pop and Spanish ballads all paint the rather dingy and elbow-to-elbow space in vibes divey yet warm. Mostly, it’s the punch-in-the-retina colors of folkloric art that give the impression that an old, slippered Mexican grandmother is somewhere just around the counter.
The service: Friendly—especially if you speak a bit of Español. The trio of waiters appears to be busy and hustling all the time, despite the space only hosting five counter seats and eight tables. No matter: Order a margarita or Mexican beer, settle in with the chips and salsa, and take the time to properly peruse the surprisingly deep, varied menu that covers tacos, burritos, and more complex interior Mexican dishes. Even with an occasional wait for a table, there’s zero rush and less attitude.
The A.V. Club’s food: There is no greater dining-out comfort than the immediate placement of warm, briny, just-a-tad greasy tortilla chips and accompanying salsa at a table. G.T.O. ups this expected Mexican-restaurant ante with some of the best salsa in the city, bright red and bursting with three-alarm, tomato-y flammability. There are hints of lime, plenty of onion, heaps of salt, heavy cilantro, and something smoky and roasted lurking just below the chunky surface.
At the same time, that ketchup-looking squirt bottle contains something far more magical and sinister: the house hot sauce. Crackling, and clearly well-acquainted with more than one chipotle pepper, it’s the perfect complement to any order. In fact, out of all dishes tried, it was the pasty refried beans—laced with queso, topped with a dash of sauce, and spooned onto a lightly grilled tortilla—that garnered the most “mmm”s.
The smorgasbord of food that eventually made its way to our table was highlighted by the bistec ranchero ($8.75)—strips of steak smothered with hot ranchero sauce, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. The ensuing pools of spicy, earthy, black pepper-flecked brown sauce on our plate necessitated more tortillas for soaking-up purposes. The queso fundido ($5.75)—melted Chihuahua cheese with chorizo—was salty and greasy, just as it should be. The chilequiles con cesina ($7.95)—sliced corn tortillas with sauce and cheese—were booming with deep red-chili flavor and lovingly salted, oregano-ed steak. A couple bites led to mathematical speculation that the chilequiles con huevos ($5.95), the same dish with three eggs, must be the best cheap hangover meal in the city.
As for the big-bannered “best steak tacos” claim—it could well lead to an interesting, March Madness-style bracket competition. Unfortunately, G.T.O.’s trek to the Milwaukee Final Four may be put in jeopardy by too much reliance on lettuce. Still, it’s hard to argue with the restaurant’s brand of cubed, moist, neatly charred carne, especially with a dash of that salsa.
The verdict: Everyone at the table had spent just a tad over $10 each, and each was more than ready for a fully sated siesta. But rumors that Guanajuato is seeking roomier digs in the neighborhood lead us to ask: Why mess with near-perfection?