Few restaurants on the square in Madison allow you to see a reflection of yourself in a wall of nearly 100 choices of tequila while listening to Future to remind you how much fun you’re about to have eating tacos.
For the first time in the Mexican-fusion restaurant’s history, BelAir Cantina will be available to Wisconsinites outside of its five Milwaukee-area locations. BelAir opened its highly-anticipated Madison location Aug 28 at 111 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The space was previously occupied by Francesca’s al Lago, an Italian restaurant chain based out of Chicago. The original marble bar counter is all that remains of Francesca’s.
For nearly three years, restaurant management company Toro, Toro, Toro looked for its first Madison location, BelAir Cantina partner Kristyn Eitel.
“It’s hard to find great locations. They’re already taken and people aren’t leaving, which is amazing. It says a lot about Madison,” Eitel said.
Eitel said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to open a new BelAir so close to the capital. She views Madison’s evolving food scene as a blessing and welcomes competition from other eateries.
“The more the merrier. Having diversity and having different options is great,” Eitel said. “Not everybody wants to eat Mexican every single day and I get that. But we want them to stay in our area and keep coming back.”
In addition to two dollar tacos and mystery tequila shots on Tuesdays and Thursdays, another key to getting customers to return is a strong support system behind the scenes, Eitel said.
Eitel credits business partner and executive chef Noe Zamora for developing the menu through family recipes and his own ideas to bolster the kitchen.
Fellow partners at Toro, Toro, Toro — Leslie Montemurro and Scott Johnson — have accompanied Eitel and Zamora on their travels to Costa Rica as well as Mexico to look for interesting additions to the menu.
“We’re flying down to hand select barrels of tequila and we’re bringing back all the weird different types of tacos,” Eitel said.
When asked as to why so much tequila, Eitel gave the easy response: Because it’s really good.
The sheer number of brands would make it hard for employees tending the bar to keep track, Eitel said, but arranging them in alphabetical order seems to be doing wonders.
Eitel takes great pride in the fresh produce that Bel Air brings in daily, without a freezer or microwave on site. Even more impressive is the meat and seafood arrives at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. just as frequently, sometimes all the way from Milwaukee.
“We’re looking for purveyors here, just from the amount of food we’re going through, then we’re prepping and it’s going out the door,” Eitel said.
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The bar is held to the same standards, as Eitel said the restaurant doesn’t use anything that is pre-mixed. Even the purees are natural, so there’s no additives or preservatives.
“Our margaritas are made with fresh lime juice,” Eitel said. “They do taste different, but it’s because they’re fresh.”
The Mexican diner with some California flair has a reputation for artisan tacos and triple digit choices of high-percentage alcohol, but BelAir’s menu holds a plethora of Mexican-inspired dishes.
The hot commodity in Milwaukee that Madison locals will soon learn to love is the Ninja Pig taco. The signature meal holds crispy pork, hoisin glaze, a thick, pungent sauce with a sweet and salty taste and a slaw that combines cucumber and the Mexican turnip, jícama. BelAir also offers super-sized burritos, fresh dipping sauces and tasty guacamole.
The menu also has vegetarian and vegan selections. The roasted veggie and kale taco costs less than a cab fare, and features roasted poblano peppers, onion, zucchini, potato and corn topped with avocado salsa.
If all you have is an Alexander Hamilton, the Vegurrito includes grilled cauliflower, baby carrots, sweet onion, poblano, broccoli, corn salsa, cilantro rice, black beans, lettuce and melted cheese affectionately called “fundido” topped with papilla salsa and sour cream.
“We have a very affordable and flexible menu. It’s super approachable, you could sit by yourself at the bar and not feel out of place,” Eitel said. “We have food on our menu that kids love to eat, so it’s very family friendly. Or you could come in with 15 people and have the greatest time and be drinking tequila and eating nachos and having more of a party scene.”
BelAir is not only proud of its food and drink, but of its community involvement. BelAir has raised $75,000 for nonprofits such as Tosa Skate Park, Urban Ecology Center and Playworks.
Each year the restaurant selects a nonprofit organization as BelAir’s Powered by Tacos partner, a community charity program. The chosen organization receives proceeds from sales of a signature taco, created in partnership with Zamora, that is featured on all location menus for six months.
This year the organization is the Ronald McDonald House in Milwaukee.
“We try to be a big part of the community we go in to,” Eitel said. “That’s always been a priority of ours at each one of our locations.”
BelAir also has a partnership with the The Clean Lakes Alliance, which is dedicated to improving and protecting water quality in the Yahara River watershed. Half of all food sales at the grand opening Sept. 2 will go to the nonprofit.
The new Madison location may not be the only BelAir in the area for long.
“A priority for me here is I don’t want this to be alone. We’re already looking,” Eitel said. “I just want this to be known for a great time. Everybody is welcome.”
The restaurant will be open weekdays from 11 a.m. until bar close. Brunch will be served on the weekends, when BelAir will open from 10 a.m. until bar close. Happy hour will be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.