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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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Juanita's Tacos in Madison serves a lot more than its namesake dish
Its wonders of the seas are perfect for summer
Juanita's Tacos on Rimrock Road brings seafood back to life.
Juanita's Tacos on Rimrock Road brings seafood back to life.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

Juanita's Taco's looks like a modest storefront operation on Rimrock Road in the strip mall that's mostly empty of tenants next to the Citgo station. Inside, there are bright orange Formica booths, a painting of some tropical birds, a blaring TV and little else. All beside the point because it's all about a menu bursting with the fruits of the sea.

You could go to Juanita's Taco's and get tacos, which are very good. But don't skip the rest of the menu, which is heavy on the seafood, for a little Mexican joint in the Midwest.

I finally dropped into Juanita's for lunch a week ago expecting a bare-bones menu. I ordered a couple of tacos ($2 each), plus rice and beans, and while waiting for my order noticed two men feasting on giant shrimp cocktails served in tulip sundae glasses.

I snacked on the complementary chips -- thick and handmade -- and two kinds of salsa, a hot red and an unusual, slightly less hot green sauce that had some avocado in it. I favored the green for that hint of avocado. Tacos are available in many different varieties. I had one chicken and one steak, but there's also pork, chorizo, soft steak, tongue and more. The tacos were beautiful, topped with lettuce, chopped tomatoes and sour cream. The rich stewed chicken held a slight edge over the steak.

However, that shrimp cocktail had seized my imagination and I had to go back. It's available in medium ($10) and large ($12). I took a chance on medium, which turned out to be a generous entree-sized tulip-glass full of seafood -- a shrimp, octopus and fish version called "Vuelve a la Vida" ("Come back to life"). (It's also available in shrimp only.)

A perfect dish for a hot summer day, the cocktail, served cold, comes with a sweet tomato-based sauce that's heavy on the cilantro and lime. This dish is inexplicably served with Saltines, but it goes much better on top of the tortilla chips. It could also come a little spicier for my taste, but I am easily won over by cilantro and lime.

There's a lot more seafood on the menu -- red or green fish stew ($12), also available in shrimp and seafood versions; octopus with onion ($14), crabs in spicy sauce ($14), ceviche ($10/$12), and fish -- served a la Diablo, or with chipotle sauce, and more. The fish filet ($10) comes as a crispy whole fish, just like at the places on the beach in Mexico where the menu is just a tray full of the catch of the day. This was a nice tilapia, served with soft tortillas, rice, and a guacamole salad.

This was the best fried fish I've had in a long time and leaves the Wisconsin notion of a "fish fry" in the dust.

Weekends, the menu includes goat soup ($8) and goat barbecue ($8). I don't eat goat, so if you're curious, this is your bailiwick. Go nuts.

Tortas, alambres (which I understand is like Mexican shish kebob, though the menu itself doesn't specify), burritos, enchiladas, chilaquiles and quesadillas are also on the menu.

The chef came out to the table a couple of times, once to apologize for having to leave some trace amount of onion in the chicken burrito that my co-diner ordered without onion and once to see how we liked the fish.

The crowd at Juanita's -- and by crowd I mean the three or four people eating there, and the waiter and the cook -- seemed unfazed by what I considered an exciting menu and more interested in the blaring TV. Like I say, it's a modest storefront in a nothing strip mall that you might be tempted to just drive past.

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