A review of a Mexican or Central American eatery around here is often tinged with hints of racism, even if it's not intentional. "Doesn't look like much, but that's how you know it's authentic." That sort of thing. It's like the shittier the surroundings, the more legitimately Latino. And we Detroiters eat that notion up. Have you tried the gas station tacos on Michigan and Livernois? How quaint! Or how about the pupuseria that was "discovered" a couple of years ago and the B.S. attempts by food critics to review it, the ones who couldn't get over the notion that no, not all Latin American cuisine is doused in super spicy hot sauce.
Speaking of which, when we started noticing our Instagram being flooded regularly with images of the food at Tienda Mexicana, a small storefront with a grocery on one side and a taqueria, known as Super Taco, on the other in Madison Heights, we turned to Yelp to see what folks had to say of the food. Big mistake. If ever you want to get to know about the undercurrent of bigotry in your neighborhood, just hop on Yelp, where you'll find an abundance of entitlement, outright jabs, as well as underhanded insults disguised as compliments. "The people bring your food to you, you pay at the counter. You know, like any Mexican market," says one Yelper. Wait, what? Or how about this one: "Authentic all the way. Right down to the metal folding chairs and haphazard décor. I love this place." Right, so take a swing at a mom-and-pop shop but throw in the fact that you love them and all is forgiven. These "reviews" came from folks who gave the spot five stars. The less charitable takeaways included the typical slams at one's "horribly broken English," rants that you might find in a story about immigration or Donald Trump.
What we'll say is when we walked into the place, situated in a strip mall on John R Road surrounded by Vietnamese businesses, there's something so familiar about the space, especially if you grew up in a Latino American household. The hum of the Mexican rock band Café Tacuba can be heard from inside the open kitchen, as well as the shouts in Spanish from servers placing orders with the cooks. The aroma of freshly delivered pan dulce lingers at the front counter and in the grocery section, where you'll find all your essentials — tortillas, spices, salsas, votive candles, and cheeses. You'll also encounter childhood favorites in the way of tamarindo candies and spicy mango lollipops. Before you seat yourself at one of the tables, choose from a variety of soft drinks from all over Mexico, Central and South America, like a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, made with real cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, a fruity selection of Jarritos, or Inca Kola from Peru. Bottle openers are placed at each table so you're ready to get started with your drink as the server approaches.
As for décor, yes, it's a hole in the wall. But that speaks to a family business that relies more on the tastes that come out of the kitchen and the thought put into what is stocked on the shelves of the market to get bodies in the door than worrying about appealing to the sensibilities of a snobby foodie. Places like Tienda Mexicana are more utilitarian in nature, meant to get families the goods that they've been craving from back home but have trouble finding in metro Detroit, unless they venture to the region's southwest side.
As for the food, you'll find undoubtedly the best tacos here outside of Southwest Detroit and arguably in all of metro Detroit. The meats are magnificently marinated and then grilled and folded into two freshly made corn tortillas. While most taco places offer carne asada, carnitas, al pastor, chorizo, and chicken, it can be difficult to find other variety, like lengua (beef tongue) or tripa (tripe). The lengua here has that melts-in-your-mouth quality that fans of the stuff look for in beef tongue. The carne asada has just the right amount seasoning. And when we squeezed a lime wedge over both, added the smallest dash of salt to counteract with the citrus, and a few slivers of radish, we let the diced cilantro and onion do their thing to complete the experience. Simply, yet masterfully made.
We also tried the torta, which Tienda Mexicana describes as a Mexican sub sandwich. We've tried tons of variations over the years. Some come with beans and guacamole. Some more closely resemble American subs and are only differentiated by the type of meat that's used. Our favorites come inside a flaky bolillo roll (not too big of a roll, otherwise it can be hard to eat) that's filled with meat, maybe beans, and sliced avocado, invoking a mash-up of Latino and American culture. As far as tortas go, the one here comes pretty close to that old-school flavor, especially the milanesa de res variety, which is essentially a thinly cut beef steak that's breaded to perfection.
An unexpected treat came in the form of elote. Anyone familiar with the elotero or corn man knows these street vendors sell corn on the cob drenched in mayonnaise, Parmesan, butter, and either chili powder or chili sauce. Here, the cook takes the work out of nibbling off the cob and serves the elote in a Styrofoam cup. Not everyone's a fan of the stuff, as it can be a bit too heavy for folks, but if you are one who finds yourself having a craving, this is right on point and far less messy than the original cob variety.
Tamales come in moist, delicious masa dough and can easily be consumed in twos or threes as they're on the smaller side. In fact, ordering in bulk is encouraged and tamales can be purchased by the dozen to take home. The enchiladas poblanas come in a rich red sauce that borders on being a mole sauce, deep in color and the faintest of chocolate sweetness, an interesting alternative to the standard tomato-y red sauces found in other enchilada dishes. If you're trying to find something sans meat, the tostadas, served with a mound of beans and veggies, will satisfy.
As for condiments, the server brings all diners two kinds of house-made salsas, a smoky red one and a salsa verde that's definitely got more of a kick to it.
When we talk about authenticity, it's important to be mindful in how we use that word. Does it serve to connect us, or to distance one group from another? In the case of Tienda Mexicana the authenticity comes in the heart and soul that goes into preparing the food. It's in the openness to speak freely and enjoy the company of others, whether you're gabbing away in English or Spanish. And it's in the sense of home you come away with after visiting this oft-overlooked storefront in Madison Heights.