by Elissa Karg
Modeled after taqerias (taco stands) popular in the Southwest, Castaneda has packed this tiny Royal Oak spot with plenty of energy.
Until they opened, the boxy little cinderblock building had been empty for three years. Now, with an exterior in rich red, purple, green and gold, with striking sheet metal artwork along the roofline, it creates a standout presence in Royal Oak. Located across the street from the Main Art Theatre, with a small parking lot (a precious commodity in the neighborhood), the restaurant, not yet two months old, is attracting a following.
Inside, there's a sleek industrial look with lots of stainless steel in a cafeteria setup. There is seating for just 15 along two counters, so most of the business is takeout.
But it's the food that sets Zumba shoulders above most of the locally available Mexican-influenced fare. Even though the menu features only five entrées, you can mix and match until your options increase exponentially.
The entrées are familiar: burritos, tacos, quesadillas and tacons (a fried tortilla folded into a cone). But add in choices of meats: Mexican beef or chicken (a stewed variety), grilled chicken or steak, Baja-style fish fillet (a mild whitefish fried in a beer batter) or ground beef, along with beans and rice or veggies.
Then add in your choice of toppings: onions and cilantro, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, cheese, jalapeños and black olives. At the salsa bar, there are more choices including green salsas made with tomatillos, plenty of cilantro and jalapeños, as well as the tomato-based salsas that we are used to. You see what I mean by exponential.
My 13-year-old pronounced the food "too authentic" for her taste (she speaks in sound bites when we eat out), but there are choices she would have been happy with. Tacos, for example, come in "Mexican street-style," "Baja style" or a more familiar crispy tortilla with ground beef.
I liked the quesadilla, featuring a thick flour tortilla laid on the grill and sprinkled with cheese. When the cheese melts and the tortilla is toasted, it is embellished with a choice of grilled chicken or steak, and folded. It's simpler than the burrito, where you can have all the toppings your heart desires — hold back or you can end up with everything but the kitchen sink.
You can add in side orders of Mexican rice, pinto beans or black beans (Cuban influence, points out my co-diner) or an appetizer of chips and salsa or guacamole. (The large guacamole is a whole pint for $4, one of the remaining bargains of the Western world.)
There is one choice only in the dessert column: Churros, a kind of Mexican donut rolled in cinnamon sugar; take my advice and skip it.
Castaneda has worked in the restaurant business for 20 years, many at a family-owned restaurant called Old Mexico that closed last year.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time," he said. "I wanted a smaller place, where we could have more control over the food. It's a new concept here in Michigan, but people who have lived in the Southwest know this kind of food. They come in and they're thrilled."
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com.