Cuisine type: Spanish/Mexican
Price per entrée: $2-20
Payment: Credit card and cash available
Location: 1935 N Water St, Milwaukee, WI 53202
As a 5th year student, I’ve had ample time to figure out what there is to do in Milwaukee. Also, I’ve had time to figure out what’s good food to eat especially at a reasonable distance. So, like most, I’ve frequented the local Bel Air restaurants on Downer and Water. Although this franchise has a string of locations across southeastern Wisconsin the two Milwaukee locations are always populated with college students. This week I was craving tacos but didn’t have the time to make it their $2 Taco Tuesday and Thursday deal days, but then a bell rang for me. What is Bel Air like not on Taco Tuesdays and Thursdays? And the answer to my speculation was not bad.
This Friday night, I kicked my Mexican food cravings and had my friend tag along with me to Bel Air. She had never been, so it was nice to have two new sets of experiences on this visit. We arrived after the busy dinner rush around 10:30 p.m., so it was not a very typical time to eat but interesting enough given that it was a weekend night and a popular restaurant. Upon arrival, the restaurant was not overly crowded. We were asked to enter our information to be contacted because there somehow was still a 5-15 minute wait. We made the decision to wait at the bar. As I looked around the restaurant, I noticed that it was still fairly active. There were larger parties crowding the door, and the booths were all taken. It would not have made sense for them to open the separate rooms past the kitchen or the patio given the season, so what they had filled and was practical.
Once seated, the bartender finished up with a few other guests and then greeted us and introduced a few of their drinks, which were a unique array of tequila options. We scoured the menu and found something suitable to which he responded to our order in due time. We both ordered the “El Cheapo.” This was a considerable choice given that college has put us on a crippling financial budget. The smallest glass was $5.00 and came with the original lime flavor. The other options were a half a pitcher for $11.00 and a full pitcher for $20.00. We both got the smallest size; my friend added strawberry to hers, and I had the original. The margarita was flavorful. By the end of the night, I had a few brain freezes but the salted rim and smooth taste made the drink satisfying and refreshing. We were also offered chips and dip while we waited. The dips included three different sauces. There was a mild vinegar flavored one that was dark brown and speckled with spices. The next was a green sauce with more vigor. If you stare long enough it looks like food colored snot or Nickelodeon slime, but it was the best out of the three. The third was an orange-tinted sauce that had a tangy twist to it. After an odd and awkward shifting and relocating our appetizer to our table, we had to close our tab at the bar. I found this to be peculiar. Most restaurants just add it to your tab, but we closed out and started over at our table. It was almost as if they knew it was a slow night so their reaction or expectant reaction time to what they usually do would be dialed back.
We took our time trying to order as I took in the vibe from a different angle. Bel Air truly has its mix of visitors. Your upscale granola can come here along with your Riverwest hipsters and eastside 9-5 full-timers; it is an eclectic group for a taste of semi-authentic Mexican food. The restaurant was still full as it crept to 11 p.m. However, there was this lackadaisical feel. People were just relaxing and chatting. Without the chaos of a crowded walkway and millions of people, this type of Bel Air was much more calming and chill.
Their menu consisted of a healthy variety of selections within the Mexican food ranges. They designated menu spots specifically for their Botanas (Snack), Platos Especiales (special plates), soups & salads, desserts. The least traditional dish of food is the tacos. However it is a crowd pleaser and when in conversation about tacos, Bel Air is sure to pop up. We both ordered a plate of tacos. I had two Baja Tilapia $3.29 each with a Carne Asada $3.93 and my friend ordered two Spicy Pollo $2.94 and a Carne Asada. At the time, I thought this would burn a hole in my pocket but average out to be a little over $10 once we got our bill. In addition, when you buy 3 tacos they give you a side of beans and rice too. With the tacos, you have the option of corn or flour shells with the corn being the more authentic choice and then a choice of pinto or black for your beans, they also had a gluten-free option. So this was not a bad situation on such a budget. I tend to order this when I come to taco Tuesday but was curious to know if it would taste differently since it wasn’t a rush hour.
It was about 10 minutes after we reached the bottom of our chip bowl before they brought us our food. This was also a bit interesting. Since it wasn’t busy I expected it to be replenished fairly sooner. The tacos were not good but not bad. That is not very descriptive but very accurate to what the experience was. The taste was there, but I tend to spread lime-juice onto the tacos for an extra kick, but overall all of the tacos felt dry like there was not enough juice to them. Overall the cuisine was relatively the same.
We scarfed our meals down and were hanging on to our seats with booming food babies within minutes. I took a to-go box home given that I could take another bite without popping a pants button. Besides minor details, this trip to Bel Air was satisfying and slightly more enjoyable than my other visits. However, bringing our bill back on time and being tentative to little details would have made the service in agreement with the atmosphere superb. I didn’t have to worry about seeing too many random friends walk by as I slop tacos into my mouth. I wasn’t concerned with being able to shout over music to have a conversation or hourly wait times. I didn’t get or get frustrated at waiting forever for food or service and feeling guilty when I need an extra fork or napkins because its so busy and will take 15 minutes to get if our waiter forgets. It was a very enjoyable experience. I had the time to enjoy my guest.