Willy Street's newest restaurant, Fuegos, which advertises itself as "Steak Tapas Vegan," has a bit of an identity crisis.
It’s a vegan restaurant serving a $49 rib-eye steak. It’s a tapas place where a single “small” plate could easily be lunch. It’s a “Latin-inspired” steakhouse serving Midwestern pork chops alongside alligator chorizo, fried plantains and ceviche.
It’s a family affair, led by executive chef Oscar Villarreal (recently of Hy-Vee Market Grill and Fusion 5 in Janesville). Oscar’s daughter, Cassandra Villarreal, owns the restaurant with Oscar’s partner, Jordan Wegner.
Wegner’s mom, Sandy Wegner, consults on the vegan dishes, since Oscar himself is a “carnivore with a conscience.” The vegan menu leans heavily on coconut oil, traditional grains and tree nuts.
“Vegans are a little more at ease when they come here because they know our meats and eggs are all from local farmers,” Villarreal said. “I’m concerned about how my meat was raised.”
During every meal we had at Fuegos, servers sang the praises of the exotic spices in the picadillo (spiced ground beef), the GMO-free corn, the flour tortillas made with avocado or red chili. Each servers’ notebook doubled as a thesaurus of modifiers: organic, farm-raised, gluten-free.
But few of those good intentions translated into pleasure on the plate.
Villarreal’s menu borrows liberally from Latin American cultures without being bound by any of them. That has potential to be interesting, especially on the most expansive new vegan menu in Madison since The Green Owl opened in 2010.
Chunky guacamole was the best part of “cinco de champiñones,” basically cheeseless mushroom nachos on blue corn chips ($12). Simple as a late afternoon snack, it was a straightforward way to head off Fuegos’ list of vegan small plates, including nut cheese with guajillo chili sauce ($9) and tostones, or fried plantains ($8).
A simple carrot beet soup ($7) made with almond milk had a nice earthy sweetness. Carrots shone, too, in a lovely little spiced carrot cake for dessert ($5).
On the meat side, herby Argentine chimichurri added color and brightness to a massive 28-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($49), surrounded by tender purple Peruvian potatoes ($4 as a side).
There were Mexican influences in meaty frijoles churros ($4), “cowboy beans” made with pintos and chorizo. I wanted to pile them onto tortilla chips and turn them into nachos. Fuegos’ own nachos ($5, a July special) looked straight from the ballpark, topped with greasy crumbled beef, cheese sauce and sliced jalapenos.
It’s best to ask a lot of questions when ordering at Fuegos. A pastelito, most of the time, involves fried dough. Paella can be interpreted hundreds of ways, but it’s essentially a rice dish. Not so at Fuegos.
Fuegos’ re-imagining of vegan paella ($16) involved half an eggplant, bitter and undercooked, mushy rice and an oily, dull broth. Even if the pastelito ($8) had a more accurate name, a bland dish that pairs tropical fruit with chalky, room temperature rice wouldn’t be a good dish.
Meatballs may be standard issue tapas, but Fuegos’ chili tomato sauce deserved to be on something better than overworked, tough lamb meatballs ($12). Elote ($4), Mexican-style street corn, has become a fan favorite for Madison restaurants, but Fuegos won’t top any lists with deflated, chewy kernels.
Chili and herb oils ringed a delicate serving of ceviche ($14) with avocado and mango, making the plate pop in more ways than one. But the texture of the tuna wasn’t firm, and it lacked the same thing nearly every local version has lately: acidity.
Not every reinterpretation flopped. A riff on a cubano ($11), skewered with a comically large pickled jalapeno, felt like the original version got a look at a burger and thought, “I want to be that guy.”
It was a bruiser of a sandwich, with thick-cut pork and salty ham set off by pickles and yellow mustard. Even if I wouldn’t call it a cubano, I’d get it again.
Fuegos has an ample, fairly priced wine list, with a few interesting options — try a glass of the Flora del Montsant grenache blend ($8), a fruity and food-friendly red from Spain, or the Deusa Nai albariño ($9), a refreshing, medium-bodied white.
Among cocktails, margaritas roughly the size of a child’s wading pool cost $4 at happy hour, but my arbol mango arrived tepid and sickly sweet. The standard version had the bright zip of fresh lime juice, but it wasn’t cold either.
If Fuegos doesn’t start strong, at least it ends well. In a touch of small town swag, servers present dessert options supper club-style on a platter. At least two were winners: a little vegan carrot cake and a caramelly flan ($5) with fresh berries and a texture like a loose cheesecake.
Fuegos brims with good intentions, and there’s a kernel of a fine idea in Latin-inspired vegan food on crunchy Willy Street. But given Fuegos’ confusing menu, lack of consistency and high prices, too many diners may never get there.