MUELLER: On ‘Kidz Bop’ and Conejito’s

Mueller_WEBWhen I began writing this column, the original topic was going to be the hot new release, “Kidz Bop 23.” My Marquee reporters and I stumbled across the album at our last meeting (don’t ask; I don’t know how it happened, either). I, being a glutton for public embarrassment for the sake of my few readers’ entertainment – in case my “Oogieloves” experience last semester didn’t prove that – decided it would be a fun thing to review.

I didn’t last long.

See, one was not made to listen to a Kidz Bop album in its entirety, much like how tongue-singeing hot sauce is not meant to be poured into a glass and served alongside dinner. It’s worth listening to one song briefly, having a nice chuckle, then moving on to something that treats your ears with some respect. Plus, I figured being a grown adult with a robust knowledge of “The Oogieloves” and the latest Kidz Bop album was a really good way to get a lifetime ban from playgrounds and grade schools.

So I decided to talk about something the Marquee section admittedly doesn’t cover enough: food.

My girlfriend and I have made ourselves a little list of the restaurants here in Milwaukee we want to try. She’s a transplant from Cincinnati, and though I consider Milwaukee my hometown, I’m woefully uninformed about my city. So when we go out to eat – to places other than Qdoba or Jimmy John’s, of course – we’re not only getting a taste of great food, but a taste of a great city as well.

There’s just one problem: A lot of the great Milwaukee restaurants are expensive – or at least too expensive for college students looking at post-graduation life with worry and packets of Ramen on the mind.

This week, we tried a place on our list neither of us had visited before: Conejito’s Place. Despite the good buzz for its authentic Mexican dishes, it was hard to be enthusiastic walking up to the door. The outside, with its goofy, old school signs and Vaudeville lighting, looked a little, well, tacky. Before we sat down and ate a single bite, I was wondering if maybe the Internet had tricked me into a dinner from hell.

And then the food came. And then it was delicious. And then it was cheap.

On the way out of Conejito’s, stomach full and satisfied, I knew I had a found a place to which I would return and take other friends and family. But why was I so skeptical? Why did I make the ultimate mistake and judge a book by its cover?

I had lost respect for the hole-in-the-wall.

When you think of great food, you often think of a fancy restaurant. You think of waiters wearing clean-cut uniforms and aprons, placing down an ornate plate of elegantly prepared food. When people grab dinner at a restaurant, they want the whole show. They want to feel pampered and indulge in the joy of being important enough to be served.

But sometimes the best food – the dishes that fill the stomach and the heart – is the kind that comes from a modest place, run with simple and heartfelt means. The food at Conejito’s – beef enchiladas for me, chicken with mole sauce for my girlfriend – was served on flimsy paper plates. There was no style or grace to the service (in fact, our waitress had to cough in the middle of taking our order). The furnishings looked like they belonged in a cheap bar that might serve food as an afterthought.

The food, though, was delicious, tasting of the kind of care that could only be learned through family recipes, not intense culinary training. No fancy techniques. Just damn tasty cooking.

I’ve been across the nation for baseball trips with my father, and the best places we’ve eaten are not nice, fancy places. They’re restaurants like Jack’s in Nashville or the Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh that you stumble upon wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into and end up discovering the best food you’ve ever shoved into your face. Any place can be all dressed up, filled with glamour and become a trendy hot spot, but it takes a unique restaurant to have real character.

I don’t normally like to agree with Food Network star Guy Fieri (with his spiky hair and constant SoCal lingo, he reminds me of the walking embodiment of a mid-life crisis), but when it comes to quick, delicious homestyle eats, he’s totally right. Good food trumps glamour and style. And to think I almost turned around when I saw Conejito’s.

And to think I almost wrote a whole column about Kidz Bop.