El Fuego heats up Layton Avenue dining scene
October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
If a continuously packed parking lot doesn't give you a preemptive clue, El Fuego, 909 W. Layton Ave., is the most popular dining spot to rear its head on the street in decades, maybe ever.
The restaurant, whose name translates to "the fire," has lit a fire in the bellies of many South Side diners, creating an already loyal and large following from seemingly north, south, east and west of what was formerly the Prime Quarter Steakhouse; another novelty restaurant which allowed diners to grill their own steaks.
But El Fuego, which both of my dining companions described as Chi-Chi's-esque, succeeds in combining their extravagant, Mexican-themed décor with surprisingly great food.
We dodged the $5 "on tap" Cuervo margaritas, which were a little too much for me, and though it hurt our wallets a little more (with other call tequilas, expect to spend $8 or more on a single cocktail), the staff here is well-versed in its tequilas and recommended a Don Julio Reposado and a Milagro on separate visits with separate servers; both were good, although the margarita mix was a bit sweet for my taste.
The appetizers (antojitos) blew our expectations away. Guacamole ($6.95) was freshly muddled, and although it was a bit sweet, did a job well done with the margaritas and crisp salty chips. Pulpo Ceviche ($7.95) placed tender pieces of octopus with avocado, tomato, onion and cilantro and was light with the flavors of fresh lime juice. Be forewarned, portions at El Fuego are large and we were unable to finish the delivered appetizers on either visit.
Entrées dabble in the expected, with combination platters, tacos, burritos and enchiladas, and the not so expected, ranging from bistec Mexicana to burgers. Seafood is heavy on this menu, and items like fish enchiladas and tequila shrimp are generous both in serving size and with flavors.
Carne asada ($12.95), which too often arrives with an overdone and slightly tough skirt steak, arrives at El Fuego superbly cooked, and layered beneath a rainbow of sautéed, seasoned peppers for excellent results.
A combination plate of enchilada, taco and tostado with chicken ($10.95), came layered with queso fresco and a side of El Fuego's standout yellow rice with chunks of carrots and other vegetables. Refried beans here are a treat, and sour cream comes automatically with many of the dishes.
Fish enchiladas ($11.95) tuck seasoned tilapia into three corn tortillas and drizzle them with your choice of red or green sauce. The tilapia is flaky and light and the combination of the fish with the enchiladas makes them an interesting alternative to straight fish tacos (which also appear on El Fuego's menu).
Service at El Fuego is prompt, knowledgeable and one of the overall components that make dining here a joy. Water glasses and chip baskets never go unfilled and there is a general air of conviviality and genuine care for the level of service. It may not be the same as dining on 6th Street, but quite frankly, for certain types of occasions, El Fuego may just plain be better.
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I thought the food wasn't as good as Botana's or Little Cancun. I had a combination plate with steak tacos and the steak was bland and tasteless. I also didn't like that there were only two choices for a combination plate. The atmosphere is nice but I wouldn't go back.
Don't listen to anybody that says this place is like Chi-Chi's because they wouldn't know anything about authentic mexican food because they actually ate at Chi-Chi's.
The same food you get all over the city, in a slightly cleaner restaurant, for slightly higher prices.
Can't believe this place keeps getting good reviews. I ate there once and the food was HORRIBLE!!! WAY too much salt. Spent $50 and won't go back. After reading all of the good reviews I thought I'd try it again, but I just can't bring myself to spend money there again.
older/wiser | Oct. 13, 2009 at 3:25 p.m. (report)
I was interested until you described it at Chi-Chi's-esque. Wondering how Chi Chi's and good food could appear in the same sentence. If this is anything like Pedro's Blue Sombrero in Brookfield....I'll stick with my personal favorites on S. 5th or Burrito Tapatio on S. 27th and Coldspring. Possibly a "Happy Hour with appetizers" kind of place for my friends and family.
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