When my cousin was living in Milwaukee a number of years ago, he turned us on to a number of very good restaurants in the area - the places where the locals went to eat. Not being very big on national chains, it was always fun to go try out some of the places he recommended. In 1995, a Mexican restaurant by the name of La Perla had opened and he had tried it a few times. On a visit to Milwaukee in 1996, we tried La Perla for the first time and fell in love with the place. In doing some cleaning up of the blog earlier this summer, I was amazed to find that I had never posted an entry on La Perla. On a recent visit to Milwaukee I decided to have dinner at La Perla.
La Perla has been owned and operated for the past 17 years by Nick and JoAnne Anton. The Anton's have either fully owned or were partners in a handful of other restaurants over the years including Crabby Al's and Vucciria Pizzeria, but La Perla has been their main claim to fame. JoAnne Anton is also known in political circles around Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin as being Senator Herb Kohl's state director running his office in Milwaukee. Restaurants are in her family's blood as the highly acclaimed Ouzo Greek Cafe in downtown Milwaukee is run by her sister, Nickey Pappas.
La Perla is located at the corner of S. 5th and W. National (see map) in a highly visible building in the Walker's Point neighborhood. The Walker's Point area has been home to a number of bars and restaurants over the years, but it is probably most famous for having a number of very good Mexican restaurants in the area. In the mid-2000's, a number of businesses in the area around 6th and National got together to promote the neighborhood as Milwaukee's Latin Quarter. A number of businesses spruced up their facades and money was used to paint buildings and generally clean up the area. Even as the notion of the neighborhood being named the Milwaukee's Latin Quarter was being discussed, the Anton's went ahead and put up a large heart-shaped sign on the corner of La Perla that said, "The Heart of Milwaukee's Latin Quarter."
JoAnne Anton pictured at right in front of La Perla and the sign she put up to tout the Latin Quarter. Picture courtesy Milwaukee Business Journal.
JoAnne Anton was also responsible for helping to set up the long-time chef at La Perla, Jaime Hernandez, in his own business down the street - Botanas. (Click here to see my entry on Botanas.) I'd heard and read over the years from people around Milwaukee that the food at La Perla suffered after Hernandez left. I will say that Botana's is probably my favorite Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee.
It had been a LONG time since I was last in La Perla. I figured it was probably six years since my last meal on what I remember being a very cold winter evening. La Perla has long been known for their festive and colorful outdoor patio. For years, a large red pepper hovered above the tables on the patio. It was difficult not to miss it as you were driving along on National. The big pepper is long gone, but the festive nature of the back patio is still there. When I went to La Perla that evening, it was turning into a beautiful late summer night. The man who greeted me as I came in gave me the option of sitting in the dining room or outside. Hardly anyone was inside eating, I would have had peace and quiet to eat. But it was too nice an evening. I couldn't say no when he said, "Come on, it's beautiful out. Sit outside." He took me to a small table just outside the door to the patio and dropped off a menu for me to look over.
Another waiter brought me a basket of homemade chips and a bowl of La Perla's excellent salsa. The chips, however, were sort of stale and lifeless. Even the great salsa that they have at La Perla couldn't save the somewhat soggy taste of the chips. That was highly disappointing.
The original waiter who seated me came back to take my order. I wasn't ready to order food yet, but I did order a margarita which I pounded in probably five minutes. As I was looking over the menu, he came back and saw that the margarita consisted of a bunch of ice and a lime wedge at the bottom of the glass. He said, "That didn't take long, amigo!" No, it did not. When he asked if I wanted another one, I instead opted for a Dos Equis Amber.
The menu at La Perla is extensive and almost reads like a book of nearly every Mexican food item that you can think of. The menu features about a half dozen appetizer plates, a dozen combination plates, enchiladas, nearly a dozen different types of tacos, a number of seafood specialties, and over 20 house specialties including chimichangas, pork chops in a green chile sauce, beef or chicken tamales, and La Perla's signature dish, the Chicken Ole Poblano - a sauteed chicken breast covered in La Perla's homemade poblano mole sauce.
I wasn't all that hungry so I didn't want to order something big like the chimichanga (which I remember the pork chimichanga as being superb) or fajitas. The shrimp tacos jumped out at me, screaming, "Pick me! Pick me!" Oooo... I do like shrimp tacos. When the waiter came back to take my order, that's exactly what I told him to bring me. And then something inside me said, "Hey, get a chunky beef taco, ala carte." The next thing I knew I was asking him to bring me one of those, as well.
The shrimp tacos at La Perla are a little different than what you'll find at other Mexican restaurants. The shrimp are grilled, but then they also put in Spanish rice and a warm tomato/onion/cilantro sauce. Sour cream, guacamole, and chopped lettuce and tomatoes come on the side. The shrimp had that wonderful grilled taste to them and the sauce was a nice compliment to the taste. With the Spanish rice, they were filling.
The chunky beef taco was good, but it almost had too much shredded cheese on top. The chunky beef had been slow cooked in a sauce and was tender. It wasn't as good as the shrimp tacos, but it was good enough. Quite actually, the three shrimp tacos were almost more than enough for what I wanted to eat. I was kicking myself for ordering the fourth taco as they are not small at La Perla.
After paying the waiter, I got up to take a look around at the inside of La Perla. The bar area and the main dining room haven't changed all that much over the years. I believe the bar area was initially also the dining area at La Perla, but I honestly can't remember if that's correct. I want to say they added the dining room on after they had opened. But I may be wrong on that. Either way, both areas were colorful with the dining room sort of having a somewhat Mexican art-deco look to it. When the back patio isn't open, La Perla can fill up quickly.
One of the more fun things they have in the bar area at La Perla is the "bucking pepper" ride. They took an old mechanical horse that you used to see outside grocery stores for little kids to ride on and fashioned a large red pepper with a saddle on it. Little kids, like the ones pictured at the right, can ride it, but the bulk of the riders are usually gassed up women who have had a couple too many margaritas. The ride costs 25 cents and the money goes to charity. It's highly popular and they even have their own "Pepper Cam" link on the Internet showing the pepper live.
(As a somewhat strange aside regarding the picture to the right - I had stopped to take the picture of the two little boys playing on the pepper and evidently the kids' mother was seated at the table next to the pepper. She shrieked at me, "Hey, what in the hell are you doing taking a picture of my boys!?"
This caused her husband to turn around and look at me, then he turned back around at his wife and said, "What's going on?"
As I walked into the main dining room, I heard her say, "That man just took a picture of the boys!"
I heard her husband say, "Yeah! So?" That's kind of what I thought. That is, unless she thought I was a pedophile and was taking pictures of little boys. But, hey, I probably wouldn't have won either way if a 20-something young lady was propped up on the saddle and I'd taken her picture. I would have probably been called a pervert. I just wanted a picture of the pepper.)
One thing that I did notice was that La Perla had added on to their north side with their tequila bar. They basically bought the building to the north of their building and put in a couple garage doors that would open on warm nights. The only thing was that it looked closed that particular evening. I didn't see any activity going on as I looked in the doors when I walked by to go into La Perla when I first arrived.
My first visit back to La Perla in quite sometime was all right, really nothing special. 10 years ago, I would have told anyone who was looking for great Mexican in Milwaukee to head to La Perla. I don't think I can say that any longer. While it's still very good, there are other places in the immediate area that I think are better than La Perla. It's still a fun place to go and the food is still better than most Mexican restaurants you'll find. But La Perla has always been one of those places that has a spot in my heart since it was one of the first truly authentic Mexican restaurants we'd ever eaten at. It's still worthy of a visit from time to time.