Though many of the dishes made in the Cynthia’s Restaurant kitchen are Mexican classics—there’s cheesy quesadillas, plump steak burritos, and meaty tacos—others were inspired by Italian and American cuisines. Chef Cynthia layers ciabatta with italian meats and tops wheat-berry bread with scoops of creamy tuna salad. She extends her culinary expertise to three different types of soup: poblano cream, cheeseburger chowder, and fondue with broccoli. .
Upscale Burgers | Late-Night Kitchen | Local Artwork
While You're Waiting: Admire the artwork lining the dining room walls. The collection rotates frequently to showcase the works of different local artists.
Inside Tip: Make a note, night owls: Elsa's kitchen stays open until 1 a.m. every day. The eatery's bartenders, meanwhile, keep pouring shots and lifting wine jugs over their heads to demonstrate their brute strength until at least 2 a.m.
When to Go: Head over on a Monday night, when Elsa's expands its normal menu to include 10 gourmet-chicken sandwiches, including versions that highlight Chinese, Mexican, and Italian flavors.
While You're in the Neighborhood
Before: Ogle an extensive collection of ceramics made by Pablo Picasso at the David Barnett Gallery (1024 E. State Street).
After: Nurse a proper brandy old-fashioned while watching some live music at Swingin' Door Exchange (219 E. Michigan Street).
Chili Lili’s serves immaculately prepared fresh-made chili and a menu of American fare and locally brewed liquid complements. Jay Schieck, Chili Lili’s Milwaukean owner, and Chef Andy Tenaglia gourmet-ify the hearty dish and offer a range of signature chilis in a bowl ($5), on a platter over garlic bread ($8), on a platter over corn bread ($8), or on a platter over mac 'n' cheese ($9). The spicy pizza chili includes bell peppers, pepperoni, garlic, and Italian sausage, whereas the vegetarian chili comes loaded with olive oil, oven-roasted portobellos, and eggplant. Chilified meals such as the flour-tortilla-encased chili burrito ($8) or the Kobe-beef chili burger ($12, add cheese for $1) save standard dinner fare from the throes of lack-of-bean-induced depression, and sandwiches such as the turkey burger ($8) and the double-cheesed black-bean burger ($8) offer the edible endurance necessary for sawing down view-obstructing trees using only a pizza cutter.
International Small Plates | Ingredients from Local Farms | Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Selections | Seasonal Menu | Patio Seating
What's to Drink: A variety of craft sodas may be on tap thanks to schoolteacher-turned-pop-producer Larry Hanlon. He brews in small batches, which allows him to tinker with creative, housemade recipes. The result is a soda that highlights the flavor of all-natural ingredients rather than the sweetness of high-fructose corn syrup. "We should know what we're eating," he told OnMilwaukee.com, "and what we're eating should taste like what it's made from."
Inside Tip: Nearly all of the dishes are gluten-free, vegetarian, or both—and if it's not already, the kitchen will work to customize it to your dietary preferences.
Behind the Name: The literal translation of the Italian word la merenda is "snack." But La Merenda's owner, Peter Sandroni, sees his establishment as more than just a place to grab a quick bite. Rather, it's a spot for diners to share an experience, where they can relax in the moment instead of wolfing their food down.
Locavore: a person who seeks out locally produced food that's often fresh, sustainable, and natural.
Tapas: what started as Spanish appetizers and bar food now encompasses small plates of myriad techniques and cuisines. Typically, several tapas are ordered for the table to share, and the server staggers their delivery so there's always something to munch on.
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Odd Duck (2352 S. Kinnickinnic Avenue) also serves up seasonal, globally inspired small plates created from local ingredients.
Even a detective might not realize at first that Terra Restaurant Bar deals in Mexican food. Outdoors there's an unassuming table for two and inside, a handcrafted bar and tables with wooden chairs. No sombreros or depictions of southwestern scenery adorn the walls. But investigate the kitchen and the smell of grilled meats and cochinita pibil are a dead giveaway.
Founders Mauricio, Paco, and Nibardo honed their skills for 15 years in the service industry before teaming up to begin a restaurant of their own. In addition to signature Mexican eats—enchiladas verdes, carne asada, tacos—the menu crosses the border with omelets, pancakes, and burgers often unseen in a Mexican restaurant. Extending its devotion to Hispanic culture beyond just food, the eatery hosts salsa lessons on Thursday nights.
According to OnMilwaukee.com, Angel Velasquez didn't only look to his own Puerto Rican heritage when planning the menu for Kafe Kultura. Instead, he brought back the dishes he fell in love with on his many travels throughout Latin American and the Caribbean. As a result, the recipes hail from varied and far-reaching locales—Cuba's ropa vieja, for instance, drenches pulled beef and bell peppers in tomato sauce for a disk-shaped meal that Carol Deptolla of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel lauded as "modern and so delicious." Pechuga rellena—a stuffed chicken breast wrapped in a blanket of bacon alongside a delicate guava sauce—comes from the Caribbean, while the cheese-laden sweet plantains and ground beef that is pastelon hangs its hat in Puerto Rico. In the dining room, Deptolla writes, "Latin music is played at a subdued level, and the lighting is discreet," forming an atmosphere that sets a prime stage for romantic dinners, special occasions, or secret rendezvous between rival spice-trade ships.