by Todd Abrams
2244 Junction St. knows the strip of Bagley Street where the majority of Mexicantown establishments are concentrated. You could easily dine, pound margaritas by the pitcher, get hot and sweaty on the dance floor with your girlfriends or boyfriends, and even do a bit of grocery shopping without leaving that relatively small area. But real neighborhoods are not defined by a sole commercial district with freeway signs guiding the way.
There are dozens of Mexican shops and restaurants scattered about southwest Detroit. Some are fairly well-known, such as El Barzón and Mexicantown Bakery. Others seem to exist merely to cater to the local population, or at least make little effort to become known as a destination. For the adventurous diner or the simply hungry, finding a satisfying meal at these places off the beaten path is a thrill. Just a few blocks from Vernor Highway, on the corner of Junction and Toledo streets, Los Corrales is one of them.
Other than one instance of an overly loud television broadcasting Mexico's equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show on a slow Monday evening, the atmosphere is warm and laid-back. There are two dining areas, one near the kitchen and a separate, slightly more formal section of booths. The high ceilings are painted orange and the walls are mostly brick hung with various antique farm implements. Given the height of the place, a sort of half-wall divides the main dining area from a labyrinth of video games and rather interesting restrooms decked with arched entryways and white ceramic outside walls. Through another set of doors is a billiards hall. Though it is apparent in the quality of the food, proof that they don't cook out of cans was found on the booth nearest the television in a massive box of dried chiles being seeded. On another occasion, many pounds of garlic heads were being broken down and skinned.
Every meal starts with a complimentary bowl of tortilla chips alongside a plate of condiments including sliced radish, lime wedges, a chunky, fresh tomato salsa, a green, tomatillo-based salsa with a bit of heat and our favorite and spiciest of the three, the roasted tomato salsa. The chips go farther in a botana with refried beans, cheese and tomatoes.
Food critics like to talk about authenticity when it comes to ethnic restaurants, but it's a bit of a false target. Just like any country that covers several different climate types, Mexico has cuisine that speaks of its region of origin. Los Corrales is literally all over the map. You'll find chiles rellenos as rich and flavorful as any in town (though a bit too soggy for our tastes) as well as the Tex-Mex invention of chimichangas, stuffed and deep-fried flour tortillas that the gringos seem to like so much. The source of super nachos is still a mystery.
Seafood dishes seem to be the anchor. If you don't mind staring your dinner in the face, a whole — meaning head, fins, tail, bones, everything except the guts — tilapia is lightly breaded and fried and plated with a salad topped with avocado slices. The advantage of cooking a whole fish is that it stays moist and tender with the added flavor and texture element of the skin; a vast improvement over most bland talapia filets and the highlight of our meal when doused with a generous portion of roasted tomato salsa and fresh lime. There are several seafood dishes, shrimp and octopus and ceviche served on a tostada. Oysters-on-the-half-shell are a cheap $15 per dozen.
If you like your food rustic, try the chicken soup filled with big chunks of carrot and potatoes and whole pieces of chicken. If you like your food in large quantity, go for the molcajete ranchero. A molcajete is a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle, usually used for grinding spices or making salsas or guacamole. This particular one is brimming with about two meals' worth of grilled beef, chicken and cactus, quesadilla, thick slices of cheese and a chorizo-heavy sauce on the bottom, as well as a container of warm corn or flour tortillas that get served to the side.
No alcoholic beverages are served so drinks are limited to the standard sodas and coffee along with a couple of aquas frescas. Horchata is a sweet, rice-based drink flavored with cinnamon and lime that tastes something like a refreshing version of eggnog. There is also a sweet, tart tamarind drink.
We could be spoiled because a good friend prepares us a homemade flan so delicate and perfect that we've yet to find its match. The flan here was cold and hard, not unpalatable but the only major disappointment of our experiences. Other than that, expect good food at honest prices. Whether you want to escape the hassle of Mexicantown's core dining district, or just want to try someplace new and a little different, Los Corrales is worth a visit.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.