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Southwest Detroit’s Peso Bar serves up mighty margaritas



Readers, I have not yet worked my way through all 20 margaritas at Southwest's new Peso Bar, though I would like to. And I don't even like tequila, despite spending 16 percent of my year in Mexico these days. Peso Bar's house brand, Cabresto, comes from the family of one of the six owners; the family has an agave finca in the state of Jalisco and gets the cactus juice distilled into tequila there.

Cabresto is so smooth that, like I said, it can be enjoyed neat, even by a person who normally relegates tequila and mezcal to the "gasoline" category of spirits. For the ingenious margaritas, co-owner and manager Eddie Vargas, who used to manage El Barzon, says he experimented mightily to come up with the combinations of fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables he finally landed on: jalapeño, habanero peppers, mango, cilantro, basil, avocado, lavender. ...

Most of the margaritas include a blend of fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, and organic agave juice (no sour mix), and the ingredients get creative from there. The "Don Silverio" uses Cointreau and charred lemon. "La Colmena," named after a longtime Southwest Detroit staple, the nearby Honey Bee Market, includes fresh berries and Michigan honey. "Estacion del Tren" — which you can see from the restaurant — incorporates bitters and smoked rosemary.

I tried "Aguacates de Mexico," which features puréed avocado and Triple Sec. It's creamy and silky, no gasoline essence at all. The red band of tajin (chili, lime and salt) around one side is deep and wide, and the experience changes night and day, depending which side of the glass you drink from.

Also fabulous was "Como la Flor" (like the flower), which has Triple Sec, rose petal water and rose petals — so pink and pretty. It's not too sweet, just right. Again, this is from someone who doesn't like rosewater when it's in rice pudding.

Less successful for me was the "Frida Kahlo," whose defining feature is coconut water, except it isn't, since you don't really taste coconut, just tequila. Still, I enjoyed fishing out and eating the red-white-and-green bandera (flag), a piece of Mexican coconut candy.

Peso Bar also serves Mexican beers, coquitas (Coke plus sugar cane liquor), cantaritos (a traditional Jalisco drink with tequila, Fresca, fruit juice, and fruits, plus tajin), and palomas (Fresca and citrus, with mezcal or non-Cabresto brands of tequila). Definitely something to consider if you can tear yourself away from the margarita menu.

Peso Bar is a restaurant, too, and I found its food uneven — some wonderful, a few dishes meh. Nothing bad, but nothing very spicy.

A "street elote" appetizer takes the roasted corn off the cob and mixes it with ancho aioli, cheese, and onion, for a smoky and sweetish delight, with hints of cilantro.

A jicama salad with avocado and arugula is terrific with a blackberry hibiscus vinaigrette. Low-cal jicama, which ought to be more popular, also appears in a fresh, crisp, simple slaw that comes with one of the "platos." Each of the mains — like milanesa de pollo, fajitas, carne molida — can be ordered in a torta, which comes with fries, in a burrito, or as a dinner plato, which includes rice, beans, and another side such as standard-issue guacamole.

Another good appetizer, enough for a main dish, is ceviche, though the pieces of shrimp, whitefish, and scallops are cut too small IMO. The sauce is an alarmingly orange-colored chili lime aioli, mayo-ish, which does the seafood justice.

As to the main dishes, I liked cochinita pibil on an excellent toasted bolillo made for Peso at Chilango's Bakery in Southwest Detroit, with an almost buttery taste. The shredded pork is mellow, and the fries are dusted with cojita cheese and cilantro. Even better are the smoky strips of grilled steak in the "Original California." "Pastor Cauliflower," with the roasted veg semi-crisp and served with grilled pineapple, is also a winner.

Not so much beef birria, a Jalisco stew with peppers that can also (should) be made with goat. It was watery and bland on the night we tried it. Semi-mashed beans are also not a standout. You can get better charro beans (whole) at any number of places in the neighborhood.

Peso Bar is LOUD, with its cinder-block walls and concrete floor. It was so loud our waitress mistook "California" for "cauliflower" and brought us the wrong dish. There's no kitsch, thank the Virgen, just photos of Mexican churches and some neon shaped into a "Make Tortas Not War" sign, and a dozen flashing strips on the ceiling. Clientele is a mix of gringos and Latinxs. They're enjoying a place that successfully combines real Mexican food with imaginative spirits.

Lunch service is planned for the future, and brunch on weekends, as well as happy-hour specials soon. Visitors are already basking at a few outside tables in the shade.

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