Food & Drink

La Cina is Detroit’s east side neighborhood secret



There's a small marquee on the Mack Avenue face of La Cina (all 10 feet or so of it) that reads, "Eastside's Best Mexican Food." It's almost inconspicuous—in fact, the whole place is, with black awning and beige brick. Sure, the sign on Mack is lit up pretty well, but blink and you'll miss it. There's a brightly colored sandwich board on the corner of Mack and Bluehill, advertising breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On Bluehill, you might notice a torero in relief on the side of the restaurant under that side's sign, but otherwise that wall is simple as well. From the very start, the place is intriguing, understated. A neighborhood secret.

Go inside and you realize where you are: It's the finished basement of that wacky Mexican aunt you never had, but always wanted. There're mirrors by booths along one wall, the booths themselves decorated with black-and-chili-pepper fabric ruching; A mural of a pueblo town adorns another wall. A 10-seat bar has a Sega machine at one end, instead of the usual bar games; (Jarritos will refresh you well here, available in glass bottles.) It's a hole in the wall, to be sure, and in such places, one finds glory.

Begin with a basket of warm chips and a small bowl of mildly spicy, smoothly ground salsa. It's not chunky or thick, and flecks of bright green fresh cilantro provide great flavor. Get a side of guacamole with your complimentary chip basket, or order a full appetizer portion with more chips and a big bowl of guacamole. It's customary, of course, to fill up on these tortillas and leave no room for the next course, but that would be a massive error here.

Dress up the next plate of chips with refried beans, cheese, olives, tomatoes, a healthy dose of well-minced and perfectly de-ribbed and seeded jalapeños, and a perfect finish of fresh, creamy, bright green avocados (a dish known in the burbs as "botanas"). Or get some bean dip or queso dip if you like, but make sure to leave room for the rest of the menu.

It's an expansive one, making the most of the classic Mexican restaurant formula of well-seasoned, succulent preparations of chicken, beef, and so forth, presented in a bewildering array of fried, steamed, or pressed tortillas of flour or corn, rolled or folded, smothered or sauced, verde or roja.

The enchiladas in red sauce are great, cheese lightly melted over the top of fork-tender corn tortillas. The roja sauce is balanced, not too tomato-heavy, nor too chili-heavy. Spicy, but not more than a light sweat. The verde sauce is a little spicier, maybe a little sweat on your eyelids. Anything with steak in it is technically called lomo, tenderloin. They're just right, meaty, cut thin but not too thin, seasoned liberally and stuffed into the tortilla in good quantity.

Get ambitious, order the No. 3 combo: three of anything off the menu: A flauta, an enchilada, and a taco? A tostada, a burrito, and an enchilada? Worth it. So worth it.

Sides are refried beans and rice, the beans at near-lava temperatures and consistency, rich with full, developed flavor. There's shredded iceberg lettuce (alas, the standard) and pico de gallo on most entrée plates. Sour cream if you like. Mexican food is, after all, deceptively simple and handily delicious.

"The World's Best Tex-Mex Chili" is an aptly named two-bean-and-beef chili with peppers and tomatoes in perfectly calibrated amounts. It'll remind you of a life that you never led, cattle drives you never went on, or maybe it'll just really satisfy your hunger and warm you up on a cold day.

Yes, also, there's breakfast. Yes, huevos rancheros, and papadzules, and breakfast burritos, but there's the regular bacon, eggs, and pancakes too. There's also a kids' menu with a burger and chicken nuggets and a cleverly hidden quesadilla (grilled cheese on tortilla, you say...)

La Cina is a warm place. The service is very casual, but that's not unwelcome. The server is your friend, bringing you chips and salsa, and collaborating on a delicious meal. The cook is knowledgeable and puts love into every part of every dish.

Since 2005, La Cina has sat quietly on its corner, serving strong food that has gained it a loyal following in the community. It's the foodie's dream: it's a hole in the wall, one of those rare places where you find great food in an unassuming location.

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