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Pico a crowd-pleaser, but don't ask for the recipe

By JIM PRICE
Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Oct. 12, 2006

Who: Antonio and Katrina Escobedo

What they do: own Senor Sol restaurants

The law of supply and demand: Katrina Escobedo's home garden had blessed her with a huge supply of cucumbers, and her frugal Milwaukee upbringing demanded that something be done with them. Couldn't her husband, Antonio, work them into a dish at the family restaurant? Together, they revised their recipe for pico de gallo to accommodate the superabundant cukes, and a small legend was born. "Everybody loves our pico," Katrina says. "It's become our most-requested recipe. But that's our secret; we're not sharing that one." It's an example of the attention to detail the couple brings to its two Senor Sol restaurants, and to the education they offer customers in authentic Mexican dining. Pico de gallo at most places is little more than a garnish or condiment. But in the heart of Mexico - places such as Zacatecas, the central Mexican state where Antonio was born and raised - it's an important part of a meal, a refreshing palate-cleanser. Antonio also makes his own Mexican sauces, called moles, from scratch, the way his mother did. It's time-consuming but worth the effort.

Antonio and Katrina Escobedo own Senor Sol restaurants, which are celebrated for their pico de gallo and moles made from scratch. "You have to have the personal touch," Antonio says.

Antonio arrived in the United States at 17 with his uncle, and immediately started a lifelong career of restaurant work, mostly in American family-style places. He moved to Milwaukee in 1982. Katrina was working her way through school at two jobs, one of them on the third shift at Omega Family Restaurant. That was where Antonio was cooking at the time, and where they met. Katrina became a health unit coordinator for Aurora Health Care, and they raised two sons, now 19 and 18 and off to college. It was a point in life when most people decide they are settled, but at which a few choose to make a major change. "He'd always wanted to have his own place," Katrina says of her husband. "He'd had a bug in his butt for years."

The first Senor Sol opened 3 1/2 years ago at 8129 W. Greenfield Ave. in West Allis, across from State Fair Park. It did well enough that the Escobedos were able to open a second Senor Sol a year and a half ago at 10401 N. Port Washington Road in Mequon. "And that's enough," Antonio says. "We don't want a chain of Senor Sols". "You have to keep control of your restaurant," Katrina says. "This is a full-time job as it is". "You have to love it," Antonio concludes.

The couple moved their trained chef from the West Allis location to Mequon to ensure a smooth opening there. Now, Antonio spends most of his time at the original location while Katrina oversees the Mequon operation. They keep things interesting by offering nightly specials and regularly adding new menu items, mostly Antonio's modifications of old Escobedo family dishes from Zacatecas. He also challenges himself by working up other favorites such as seafood and sauces from Mexico's coastal regions. You can check out the selections for yourself at www.senorsol.com.

Señor Sol believes in slow and subtle fire

By Dennis R. Getto
Journal Sentinel dining critic
Published: July 11, 2003

Halfway into a mound of fresh guacamole, the edge of my nacho chip hit something hard. I quickly began using my chip as a small digging implement, pushing the creamy avocado spread aside until I uncovered what I suspected was hiding there - a whole avocado pit. The find coaxed a smile from me. Leaving an avocado pit in is an authentic Mexican trick that keeps the guacamole ($4.95) from turning brown. And it showed that someone in the kitchen was taking time to create some well-made Mexican food. It was only one of many little details that I saw on three recent visits to Senor Sol, a fun, casual restaurant just across the street from State Fair Park on Greenfield Ave.

Two transformations
The restaurant has been the scene of two big changes within 11 months. Last year, Anastasia Tourloukis opened a slick Italian trattoria called Ristorante Vesuvius on the location. To do it took extensive remodeling of what had been a bar, and Tourloukis did an excellent job of it, installing tile floors, sleek Italian lights, and wall treatments that resembled Mediterranean stucco.Just after Christmas, though, Ristorante Vesuvius closed - Tourloukis said she simply didn't have enough business.

Two months later, owners Antonio and Katrina Escobedo re-opened it as Senor Sol. The colorful maracas, chile wreaths, serapes and sombreros they've hung up look great against those stucco walls from the trattoria days. Antonio Escobedo moved to Milwaukee in 1983 to work at the Omega restaurant in Greenfield. He married Katrina, who's from West Allis, 18 years ago; she helps out as hostess at Senor Sol part-time.

Antonio's creations show a mastery of Mexican cooking and a familiarity with Milwaukee palates. The chef and owner has developed a menu with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of Mexican food while keeping the fiery wildness of Mexican chiles carefully leashed. Just start on the complimentary salsa and chips and you'll see what I mean. Three dipping sauces are served - a toasted red pepper sauce, a mild but flavorful green sauce, and pico de gallo, a chunky salsa made of onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, chiles and cilantro.

Taste without the tango
At most of the authentic Mexicanspots in town, one or more of these salsas would be a little too hot for my taste. At Senor Sol, all have a pleasant roundness that lets the flavors through without tangoing on your tongue. All six main courses that I sampled in three visits would be worth ordering again. My favorite, Steak a la Mexicana ($9.95), started with a thick slice of sirloin - with just the amount of chewiness that Mexican cuisine requires - grilled then topped with a fresh, thin sauce of tomatoes, onions and just enough jalapeno peppers to impart some authentic flavor. I noticed the sauce had been fried, whichentails sauteing the tomatoes and other ingredients in oil that's heated almost to the point of smoking, and it's one of the techniques that gives Mexican food its authentic flavor. I also liked Senor Sol's pork chops (called Chuletas Rancheras, $10.95). Depending on the region of Mexico you're in, a ranchero sauce can either be mild or extremely spicy. Before I ordered, I asked our server if the dish was "muy picante" - very hot. "No," she answered, holding her thumb and index finger half an inch apart. "Poquito" (a little).

That description was enough to reassure me. The dish itself is wonderful - two thick chops glistening beneath a home-style sauce with onions, garlic and sweet peppers. I ate one of the chops American style, with a knife and fork, and cut the other into strips that I loaded into fresh, hot corn tortillas, adding just a little of that delicious pico de gallo before I rolled them up and ate them like the folks I'd seen in Mexico. The warm tortillas, though, hadn't been grilled quite enough to bring up their flavor.

Sizzling sweetness
One of the most popular dishes at Senor Sol, Antonio Escobedo said, is fajitas. The shrimp version ($11.95) that one of my dining companions tried was top-notch. We watched as our server delivered a still-sizzling platter of shrimp, red and green sweet pepper strips, and onions. The ingredients had been marinated in fresh lime juice, then fried together. That juice, accented by the sweetness of the shrimp and the onions, formed a tasty glaze for the nine sweet shellfish on the platter. We loaded the mixture into warmed flour tortillas and enjoyed each bite.

On another visit, my choice of shrimp differed slightly - I picked Camaron al Mojo de Ajo ($10.95). These shrimp had been sauteed in a traditional Mexican garlic-butter sauce that tasted great on the house rice or in a warm corn tortilla. The house rice and beans (which had been sprinkled with crumbled Mexican cheese) were better than most served at Mexican-American places. At one point, I went back to the basket for a few tortilla chips just so I could dip them in the cooked beans.

At lunch, Senor Sol has a special menu printed on a card of specials, but it was two house specials ($6.95 each) that attracted our attention. Flautas - tortillas rolled around a tasty chicken filling and deep-fried - were crunchy and especially good when we dipped them in a thin avocado sauce served on the side. So were two chiles rellenos - grilled to bring up their flavor, skinned, filled with mild cheese, dipped in egg batter and then topped with that delicious fried tomato sauce. The true test of a good relleno is that it's served as soon as the sauce is poured, so some of the egg batter's crispness remains. These passed that test with high marks, but the sauce was so much like some of the others I'd tasted it bordered on boring. So did chicken quesadillas ($5.25), which were filled with cheddar, chicken and onions and grilled just enough to melt the cheese.

The main disappointment was flan ($2.95), which should have been a Mexican custard, but tasted more like a Mexican cheesecake. It was after my meals that I learned I'd missed one dish Antonio Escobedo told me was typical of his home in Zacatecas: tamales in green sauce ($7.65). I have no choice but to go back for them. And it will have to be soon because I also missed a chance to sit on Senor Sol's rear patio. It looks like a wonderful spot to sip Coronas on a warm night. "Some nights," Antonio Escobedo said, "we have more people on the patio than in the restaurant. "Here is another one. There are more just having a hard time finding them.