As I took my seat at the bar of the almost 6 month old La Merenda International Tapas Bar, located just east of 1st and National in Walker’s Point, a couple of employees were hunched over last week’s MKE newspaper reading the “Threeview” review of their restaurant. They seemed somewhat concerned with something that was written but didn’t seem too upset. One was concerned that a threeviewer was complaining about how expensive it would be to make a dinner out of La Merenda’s tapas (a claim which I will address later in this review). Within a minute they were scattered about the restaurant tending to customers, making sure the bar was set up for the night, and checking details around the restaurant. I was eager to pick up a MKE and see what had them so concerned.
I ordered a Lakefront La Merenda National Avenue Ale, which is specially brewed for the restaurant. It was an excellent malty ale with a touch of hop bitterness. The beer selection is quite impressive with offerings from Wisconsin breweries like Lakefront, New Glarus, Tyranena, South Shore, Greys and Capital as well as excellent selections from Great Lakes (Cleveland, OH) and Bells (Kalamazoo, MI). An impressive selection of imports is also available. A wide array of wines by the glass seemed to feature some lesser known wines from around the world.
The menu is quite long and is entirely composed of small plates/tapas and it had just been updated according to the bartender. My head was spinning trying to chose from a list of about 30 selections. Featuring small plates from a diverse list of countries including China, Columbia, Argentina, Greece, Thailand, and France, the menu truly has something for everyone. Still undecided after about 5 minutes of reading each description over and over, I asked for some recommendations. The friendly bartender rattled off 7 or 8 of his favorites. I decided to try the roasted kalamata olives, patatas bravas, and a Philippino pork dish called Humba. I was going to try the Osso Bucco with red pepper risotto (a steal at $9.00) but the bartender’s rave review of the pork dish sealed the deal.
I was presented with some bread and a great macadamia nut butter. Shortly after, my plates were brought out. I grabbed one of the olives, which had been roasted with garlic, fennel seed, olive oil, oregano, orange and lemon zest, and chili flakes and bit into it (they are not pitted so be careful). The flavor was rich and briny with a nice bit of heat provided courtesy of the chili flakes. The lemon and orange zest cut through the richness. Most marinated olive dishes are so loaded up on garlic that it overpowers the dish. Here the ingredients worked very well together and the garlic, while still noticeable, was somewhat subdued. Pita slices are provided so you can mop up the flavorful olive oil off the bottom of the plate. The bartender said that even if I couldn’t finish them they were even better the next day. He was right as they made for a nice afternoon snack.
The patatas bravas could have been a great value at $3.50 for a large bowl of potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce and aioli. Too bad it was a disappointment reminiscent of hotel brunch potatoes that had been allowed to go soggy. They tasted like they had been stored in a warming bin placed in a steam table. The tomato sauce and aioli were the only saving graces. The slightly spicy sauce was flavorful and was nicely offset with a creamy aioli. If they had fried up the potatoes and served them crispy this dish would have been excellent.
My favorite dish was the Humba, which was a succulent pork shoulder braised with some mushrooms, fermented black beans, ginger, brown sugar, garlic, and some Lakefront Klisch lager. It is served with a side of rice. The rich pork shoulder was fall-apart tender and the earthy dark mushrooms added more depth to the dish, already loaded with the flavor of soy sauce and fermented black beans. The ginger really cut through the rich morsels of pork. I would highly recommend this dish to anyone who likes Asian flavors and considering the size of this plate, it would make an excellent dinner when paired with one of La Merenda’s salads or lighter appetizer plates. At $6.50 its hard to pass up.
Which brings me back to the comment by a reviewer in MKE about how expensive La Merenda would be for dinner. She said “The plates were expensive if you were to make a full meal of it.” While everyone’s concept of expensive is different, people should realize that the reviewer in question is only 23 years old, likely fresh out of college. Her idea of expensive may not be what most people consider expensive. I believe that anywhere you can grab three plates of good tapas (ok, I actually had 2 excellent plates and one crappy one) for under 15 bucks is actually quite reasonable. I ordered three plates only because I wanted to try three things. I easily would have left satisfied with two. My bill (before tax and tip) was about 18.50 and that includes a micro brewed beer. In a city where many entrees are approaching 20 bucks or more La Merenda is an excellent mid-priced restaurant. La Merenda also offers what appears to be an excellent inexpensive lunch menu featuring many of the tapas offered at dinner as well as 1/2 sandwich selections starting at a paltry $2.25. Next time I will bring a group of friends so I can try more items as this is definitely a place for sharing.
La Merenda International Tapas Bar125 E. National AveMilwaukee, WI 53204414-389-0125