If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that there are a number of very good to excellent Mexican restaurants in the greater Milwaukee area. Most of them are centered in the Walker's Point neighborhood and on the near south side of Milwaukee. One that I've wanted to try for quite sometime is a place in the Bay View neighborhood called Riviera Maya. On a recent trip to Milwaukee, I stopped into Riviera Maya for lunch.
In 2004, a small Mexican restaurant opened on the south side of Milwaukee by the name of Xel-Ha, named after the natural aquarium on the Mexican Riviera. The restaurant took the place of a former Mexican restaurant and became one of the more popular places for Mexican food on the south side. Faced with big crowds and long waits for their customers, the owners knew that they had to move to a larger location. They found a bigger location on S. Kinnickinnic Street (known as "KK" Street to the locals) and reopened as Riviera Maya in November of 2007. On line reviews of the place tout their tortilla soup, mole and guacamole as some of the best in Milwaukee.
I pulled up in front of Riviera Maya just before noon on a soggy week day. (see map) Walking in, I immediately saw a lively looking dining area - well, let me rephrase that. A decidedly interesting - yet, somewhat scary - colorful dining room. It was just after Halloween and I wondered if some of the decorations were still up because of that. I couldn't tell if the figures were supposed to be some sort of deceased circus performers or what. The large skeleton face on the wall behind the bar would have scared the bejeezus out of most little kids. It startled me for a split second.
I took a seat along the banquette wall lined with fluffy pillow backs. A large colorful mural was to my back. My server, Marcos, came over with a menu and asked me if I'd like anything to drink. I ordered a Dos Equis Amber for the time being.
Actually, Marcos left me with two menus. There was the regular menu and a lunch special menu. Compared to other Mexican restaurants, the menu at Riviera Maya was pretty small. You had your basic tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos and fajitas with your choice of fillings such as garlic grilled shrimp, steak, pulled pork and shredded beef. Their chile relleno was available with your choice of meat or vegetable filling other than just a cheese-filled chile relleno that most other Mexican places have. They had a number of torta (Mexican sandwiches) to choose from - all of which came with a cup of their tortilla soup.
The mole part of the menu was the most interesting. You don't see a lot of mole dishes featured on Mexican restaurant menus, but Riviera Maya had a number of mole sauces that you can order to go over enchiladas with your choice of meat or fillings. They had five different mole sauces including a pumpkin seed mole sauce with onion, cilantro and green peppers. There was a choice of either an almond or sesame seed mole made with broiled tomato sauce, peppers and onions. Another mole featured chocolate and peanut sauce with blended pasilla and ancho peppers.
There was also a number of vegetarian dishes on the main menu at Riviera Maya. I understand that the restaurant is popular for catering vegetarian dinners. And one thing that is different at Riviera Maya from other Mexican restaurants - the chips and salsa are not free. A basket of their chips with their combination red and green sauce is $1.95.
Looking over the lunch specials menu, many of the items they serve on the regular menu are available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The one thing that I had my eye on with the regular menu were the enchiladas verde with your choice of chicken, shredded beef, pork or steak. (Vegetarian enchiladas verde were also available with your choice of potatoes or zucchini for the filling.) On the regular menu, you get three enchiladas - at lunch, you get two. I got two of the pork enchiladas verde.
Not long after I ordered my enchiladas showed up at the table. A side of Xel-ha rice - basically rice with diced carrots, corn and peas - came with the enchilada. A healthy bit of goat cheese was on the top of the enchiladas along with chopped tomatoes and lettuce. The enchiladas were swimming in the verde sauce.
The enchiladas had a crispy crunch to the shell, but the pork was tender and succulent. It was seasoned and had a bit of a bite to the taste. With the chile verde sauce had a nice little spicy kick with a little lingering aftertaste. The enchiladas weren't big, but they were big enough for lunch.
The Xel-ha rice was perfectly steamed and the bits of carrots, corn and peas gave it a nice flavor above and beyond what you normally get with rice. The rice didn't have any Mexican seasoning which I kind of liked. Overall, the meal was about as authentic of Mexican food that you could have without being in Mexico.
There are some other Mexican restaurants in the immediate area that I'd like to try at some point, but I may be coming back to Riviera Maya first to try a shredded beef filled chile relleno or a Taco Xel-ha - a corn tortilla stuffed with steak, pork, chorizo and bacon. The service was adequate. The food was very good and the atmosphere was, well, trippy. Riviera Maya holds its own against some of the other very good Mexican restaurants that I've visited in the greater Milwaukee area.