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From top to bottom, everything at BelAir looks inventive and original.
From top to bottom, everything at BelAir looks inventive and original.
BelAir will breathe new life into an area that so badly needed a shot in the arm.
BelAir will breathe new life into an area that so badly needed a shot in the arm.

BelAir Cantina breathes fresh air into nuevo-Mexican scene

October is the fourth-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 2010."

It's a pretty safe bet that any restaurant or bar that Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro attach their names to is going to be good. They've simply nailed every genre they've tried, from café to dive bar to tapas to lounge. After a quick lunch today at their new entry into nuevo-Mexican fare at BelAir Cantina, I can comfortably say the pair has done it again.

You have to feel for the owners who built Good Life, where BelAir Cantina now stands, at 1935 N. Water St.

On the south end of the Humboldt Bridge, it's an eye-catching space in an excellent location -- but with the bridge out for so long, it had no chance.

But now the bridge is open, and so is BelAir. For Johnson and Montemurro's first take on Mexican, it's really good.

The aesthetic is Baja meets Southern California, but it feels consistent with the other places in this restaurant group; just a little like Palomino and Comet but more airy and bright.

And the food speaks for itself. Mind you, I'm not a professional food writer, but I like great Mexican food. Today, I mixed and matched three tacos: carne asada, Korean beef and pollo Yucatan. All three were quite good, and with my colleague Bobby Tanzilo's tilapia taco/tostada lunch, our bill came out at a reasonable $20.

Bobby said his Baja tilapia tacos were delicious, with lightly battered fish and a mellow sauce, though his shrimp tostada was a bit oversalted.

But we both raved about the medium-hot salsa verde that we enjoyed with the complimentary chips.

I'll definitely come back after sundown soon to sample their creative and expansive tequila list; from top to bottom, everything at BelAir looks and feels inventive and original.

Our service left a bit to be desired, as our waiter seemed fairly confused and inattentive, but being brand new, it's understandable the management has a few kinks to work out. The music being played didn't match, either -- I hardly expected to hear The Cranberries, Modern English and The Wallflowers when I could've been listening to Manu Chao or Calexico.

But those are just small knocks on what is otherwise set to be a quality addition to the area's dining scene.

I know we write a lot about Johnson and Montemurro's restaurants, but they deserve it, not just for their food, but for how they raise the bar in Milwaukee. BelAir will do just that, breathing new life into an area that so badly needed a shot in the arm.

Talkbacks

sandstorm | Oct. 8, 2010 at 9:42 a.m. (report)

they told you to wait at the bar across the street?
that's awesome!

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Idigmusic | Oct. 8, 2010 at 7:05 a.m. (report)

I thought this place was awesome! I was with a decent size group on a Saturday night. Tho they were very busy, they suggested we wait at the bar across the street & they would call us. We waited no longer than they said & were happy they could accomodate us! The food was awesome! Salsa & chips were good, but I do agree that they could have more spice. You can ask for a habenero salsa as well which was a much higher kick. The queso fundido was amazing. The service was great, always a plus with a large group drinking tequilla! The one plate that was not right was very quickly fixed. I can't wait to go back & try more items!

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whoda_thunk_it | Oct. 7, 2010 at 1:05 p.m. (report)

I gave the place a try last week. The people behind the bar had to look at cheat sheets to see what the house specialty drinks contained. The house Marg was made with what tasted like fresh lime juice, but not much else. The salsas were amazingly bland and while the filling selections for the tacos sounded good they are really lacking flavor. And with so few items to make at a time when the place was 1/3 full why did it take so long for teh food to arrive? I don't mind a place with a small menu, but every item on it needs to knock your socks off. I'm going to wait a week or two and give them another try, but I just ate at Chipotle for the first time today, and surprisingly enjoyed the food more. As for kid-friendly...please take them to McDs and allow people to enjoy their nights out.

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A_Barfly | Oct. 7, 2010 at 11:27 a.m. (report)

35070 I went for lunch yesterday and had a great assortment of tacos that I really enjoyed. I didn't care for the salsa variety that they serve with the chips, I just thought all three were incredibly bland. They definitely need to add a little heat or something to the salsa selection to spice it up a bit. The food itself was very flavorful. Overall - great job, I'll be back...

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collaborate | Oct. 6, 2010 at 9:39 p.m. (report)

I enjoyed both my experiences--great bartender! Needs better chips and more spice.

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