As I continue to go down the list of restaurants that were suggested by Bob and Kasey Kelly when they were married in Milwaukee last May, I decided to try Botanas - another Mexican restaurant that is in the city's "Little Latin" area around National and 5th (see map). Botanas is just south of La Perla, and a little over a block south of, and across the street from, La Fuente. To keep up with either one of those two, Botanas would have to be excellent.
Jaime Hernandez grew up in Mexico, the oldest of 11 children. He was asked to help out in the kitchen as a growing child, then worked in a small taco stand with his father. That stand eventually turned into a restaurant. In 1989, Hernandez came to Milwaukee to help out at a Mexican restaurant. He never went back. He worked all types of jobs at a number of restaurants in the area - bus boy, cook, waiter, bartender - before he eventually became a chef at La Fuente. Hernandez eventually moved down and across the street to be the head chef at La Perla.
In 2005, Azteca, a former restaurant on 5th St. south of National, moved across the street to a larger building. Jaime Hernandez was given the opportunity to buy the old restaurant with the help of La Perla co-owner JoAnne Anton. When Hernandez, along with his wife, Martha, opened the restaurant, it seated 38 people. Less than five years later, they have expanded the restaurant to over 400 seats, including a huge dining hall where people can have pre-selected buffet dinners for parties. It has quickly become a popular stop for Mexican food lovers in the Walker's Point area of Milwaukee.
It was after 8 p.m. on a weeknight when I got into Botanas (a Mexican slang word for "snacks"). I was able to park on the street, but Botanas does have valet parking in a nice sized lot next door. While the place is decorated in bright colors and with murals, Botanas was dimly lit. They have a good sized bar that you walk into as you come in to the restaurant. A pretty good sized crowd was having dinner in the place. Two birthday parties were going on in the dining hall off the main dining area, so it was loud and raucous.
I sat down and was given a menu along with a basket of chips and Botanas homemade salsa. The chips were nothing special, but the salsa was good with not much of a kick to it. One plus is that they did have Sol beer, but I also wanted to try a margarita. I ordered up a regular house margarita to start out.
Like most good Mexican restaurants - especially in Milwaukee - Botanas had almost too much to choose from. They had beef, chicken, pork and seafood specialties. My head was just spinning from the choices - tamales, burritos, pork in green tomatillo sauce. The amount of great sounding Mexican food on the menu was almost too much.
I ended up ordering a super burrito filled with chunky beef. The beef was slow-cooked in a tomato sauce to make it tender. I also ordered a Pork tamale on the side. The house margarita was good, but I ended up ordering a Sol when I ordered my dinner.
Like most Mexican food, it didn't take long for the food to make it to my table. The super burrito was very large, but manageable to eat. And the beef was very tender - you could easily cut it with a fork - and the seasoned tomato sauce they slow cook the beef in was a great taste compliment. The super burrito came on a large plate with rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, lettuce and guacamole.
Let me tell you a bit about the guacamole. I don't know what Botanas does to their guacamole, but it may have been the freshest, best tasting guacamole I've ever had. I'm not kidding you one bit. It was absolutely wonderful. I'd never had guacamole that good before and I thought I'd had some pretty good guacamole over the years. I was literally licking the remnants off my plate, it was that good.
And the pork tamale was just outstanding, as well. It was served in an authentic corn husk and the pork was tender and flavorful. All in all, my meal at Botanas was just outstanding.
Seated at a table just across from me was a Hispanic couple. I noticed people coming out of the kitchen and talking to them. It turned out that it was the owners, Jaime and Martha (right). A few patrons would walk by and they'd talk with them for a bit. They seemed to be very nice people that had a very loyal clientele.
And I can see why. The food at Botanas was just outstanding. Some of the best - if not THE best - Mexican food I've ever had in Milwaukee. And with La Perla and La Fuente just up the street, that's saying a lot. My meal with a margarita and couple of beers came to about $33 bucks with tip. The service was efficient and the atmosphere was wonderful. The next time I go into Botanas, I'm going to get a side order of guacamole. Maybe two sides of guacamole. It was just that outstanding. And with all the other great sounding things on the menu that I want to try, I can't wait to go back later this year.