Many people think Mexican cuisine is solely chimichangas, burritos, refried beans and rice, served with globs of cheese. In fact, Mexican cuisine is vast and far different from the American version, commonly consisting of marinated seafood, beef or pork prepared with sauces made from chilies, fruits and vegetables indigenous to Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Seafood preparations include the classic dish, huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper Veracruz), in which the whole fish is roasted or grilled and finished with a sauce made of onions, garlic, olives, capers, chilies, tomatoes and spices; or fish tacos — grilled, roasted or fried fish on fresh tortillas served with lime and jicama or cabbage slaw.
At the other end of the spectrum are foods prepared with complex sauces using myriad chilies, roasted and peeled or toasted and ground and incorporated into sauces such as mole (with hints of dark chocolate) to create cuisine foreign to many of our palates.
Tacos are common fare in Mexico, but they’re very different from the American version. The taqueria is the home of the indigenous Mexican treat, and authentic versions of taquerias can be found throughout metro Detroit.
Taqueria food is fresh, fast and cheap, and it’s usually low-fat and delicious. These small restaurants serve seafood and meats typically cooked on vertical broilers or grills, and then shredded, served on fresh tortillas with salsa, but without the gringo additions of lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and cheese. Such garnishes taint the intended flavor. The tortillas, sometimes made by hand, are so fresh that they don’t require frying.
Usually the tacos are served with lime wedges, chopped onion and cilantro, always fresh and crisp. Some taquerias serve a variety of fresh salsas and sliced radishes.
Southwest Detroit has a growing Latino population that supports many taquerias along and around Vernor, Michigan and Livernois streets. On a recent visit, I passed probably two dozen restaurants I didn’t know existed.
One of my favorites, Señor Lopez Mexican Restaurant, at Michigan and Cecil, is a pleasant, inconspicuous, impeccably clean little neighborhood eatery serving authentic Mexican food. The several times I was there, most of the patrons were Latino. I tried the shrimp in mole, chilaquiles, chicken tacos and chicken fajitas, all of which I’d recommend. But the outstanding dish was the chiles rellenos — poblano peppers charred and peeled, stuffed with Muenster cheese and lightly coated in a thin batter and deep-fried. The result is a slightly crispy coating encasing a moderately spicy chili filled with creamy cheese, smoothing out the heat.
Even better was the carne de puerco en salsa verde ($6), a light stew of lean pork in a tomatillo (green tomato) sauce. It is succulent! The dish is served with warm tortillas and sides of rice and beans.
Señor Lopez is not fancy and the service is efficient. It’s a place to go for a quiet meal of fresh, well-prepared food that’s as authentic as it gets, with low-level Latin music playing in the background, and no booze. It’s out of the way, but worth the trip. There is street parking, and the lot at the funeral home next door can be used at night.
If you are looking for excellent beans, Señor Lopez’s are very good and not refried, but I give the nod to Taqueria Lupita, home of a $3 lunch special that can’t be beat for authentic taqueria food. Directly across the street is Evie’s Tamales, a must-stop when in the area to pick up some of the best tamales in town. They keep well when frozen and are excellent when reheated.
Two other finds are in Oakland County. Mario’s Meats is a Mexican market and deli. The staff is friendly, the store is spotless and the food is excellent and inexpensive. Tacos are $1.50; prepared meats and chicken are sold for about $5.99 per pound. Mario’s offers prepared fillings for tortillas, with a selection including pollo verde (shredded chicken in a spicy green tomatillo sauce); fajita (tender pieces of lean beef); barbacoa (shredded brisket); menudo (tripe); lengua (tongue); and carne con chile (tender pieces of pork braised in a chili sauce).
The selections are seasoned like food typically sold by Mexican street vendors. Equally good is the deli’s beans and rice, which can be added on the spot to fresh, hot tortillas with the meat of your choice, or you can buy the fillings and tortillas and make your own at home. Nuke the tortillas and the meats separately, and use one or two tortillas per taco, your choice.
Mario’s is also a butcher shop with a fine, lean chorizo sausage. It’s great when fried with onions, chilies and potatoes, with or without eggs, for breakfast. They also sell the best tortilla chips I’ve found, El Milagro brand (not the tortillas, which I’m not fond of, but the chips).
Vallarta’s is a Mexican bar and restaurant. On a recent visit, we were the only gringos. A Tejano band was playing and everyone was dancing. It was a real scene. But this is about the food, and it’s excellent. We started with tacos, both chicken and beef, and a seafood “fountain,” that included squid, shrimp, fresh oysters and more. For entrées, six of us shared chicken in mole, a whole red snapper sautéed in garlic and what the menu called braised cabrito, or goat. What they actually serve is cordero, which is lamb.
The menu is extensive, and the place might qualify as a cantina. Thus, you get the best of both worlds. If you don’t like loud music, go early; music starts at 9 p.m. Lunch includes $4.99 specials; offerings include tacos, enchiladas, burritos, etc. Take a friend or an empty stomach, portions are “muy grande.”
Vallarta’s isn’t fancy; decor is “neighborhood bar.” It ain’t Birmingham, but it’s a different culture and a real Oakland find.
Here’s my recipe for nachos that several friends say are as good as those served anywhere: Spread Mario’s refried beans on the Milagro chips, place in an ovenproof platter. Sauté chorizo removed from the casing with chopped onions and chilies. I use poblanos for a little heat. Sprinkle the meat mixture over the beans and top with grated queso Chihuahua, a mild, creamy cheese. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. If you like, serve with salsa and jalapeños.
Señor Lopez Restaurant is located at 7144 Michigan Ave., west of Cecil, Detroit. Call 313-551-0685. Lupita’s, 3443 Bagley, Detroit. Call 313-843-1105. Evie’s Tamales, 3454 Bagley, Detroit. Call 313-843-5056. Mario’s Meats, 2524 Dixie Highway, at the corner of Silver Lake Road, the first traffic light west of Telegraph, Waterford. Call 248-673-9723. Vallarta’s, 2505 Pontiac Lake Road, just north of the Oakland County Farmers’ Market in Waterford. Call 248-683-3505.Jeff Broder is a chow-hound for Metro Times. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org