A vast majority of the Mexican restaurants we’re all familiar with in Detroit feature similar menus, usually an all-encompassing array of tacos, combo platters, fajitas, tortas, and surf ‘n turf dishes. This variety is important for business, as most restaurateurs make it a point to offer as much of what they think the customer wants as possible. But as gente in the Motor City are representing more parts of Mexico than ever, some of the newer eating establishments are veering away from this catch-all formula and instead honing in on Mexican specialties from their home states in Mexico or the USA. That means ingredients from the rural highlands of Jalisco, the arid parts of northern Mexico, the temperate climes further south, and the balmy coasts. For some Detroiters, this means new dishes to get familiar with, while for others, it means reconnecting with regional favorites.
We’ve been keeping notes for years on the myriad regional Mexican dishes being served and found these restaurants — some new, some more established — that are doing what few if any others are around town. Here’s what we’ve come up with.
El triangulo dorado refers to the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa (it also holds another connotation, but let’s not go there). Here, we’re talking about the golden trifecta of tacos and its taco-like cousins offered at this eatery, which opened in the former El Caribeño in early 2019. Husband and wife owners Santiago Torres and Karina Rocha are both from the region had previously opened the Raspados y Obispos La Niña several blocks away, but were longing for dishes from their respective home states. Rather than wait for someone else to do it, they jumped on the opportunity themselves. In addition to taqueria staples like carne asada, chorizo and lengua, Triangulo Dorado also carries a few other handheld dishes previously not available in Detroit. Like most other northern Mexican states, these three are known for the quality of their beef. If you grew up hitting up backyard carne asadas every weekend, you’ll appreciate it.
As you would imagine, vampiro translates to vampire, but in the state of Sinaloa (and some others throughout Mexico) a vampiro refers to a style of taco wherein its tortilla vessel is griddled flat (no, not like a tostada) on the comal until crunchy and topped with carne asada (or some other meat), melted cheese, and some form of salsa. Here, in addition to a generous helping of smoky carne asada and chihuahua cheese, the vampiro is rounded out with a smooth dollop of avocado crema.
Another relative in the northern Mexico taco family is a sandwiched creation called the mulita. Triangulo Dorado uses more of that prime beef and stacks it between two house-made corn tortillas, for a smoky meaty and masa-rich flattened taco snack.
Peso Bar flung open its doors in April 2019 to much-deserved hype. The fast-paced eatery and bar inside of the former Huron Room and short-lived Fist of Curry has already gotten lots of attention for its modern take on Mexican and Mexican-American staples like the torta, burrito, elote, and margarita. The minimalist, but bright interior features all kinds of custom features like a line of multi-colored neon lights on the ceiling, its bar made with 8,000-plus pesos, and its vintage posters from the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City. All this combines for a sophisticated, yet effortlessly laid back vibe.
A handful of restaurants around town tout “California” burritos on their menus. They usually get this distinction if they’re the overstuffed, thick-as-a-bicep variety, as opposed to their thinner, simpler cousins from the border regions. But what most around town are offering is far more likely inspired by the Mission burrito, as in San Francisco’s Mission District — whose supersized flour tortillas are bursting with a customer’s choice of meats and veggies, plus rice, beans, and optional guacamole. The California burrito hails from about 500 miles south in San Diego and is defined by its specific ingredients: meat, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and french fries. With that brief lesson in burrito literacy out of the way, the California burrito at Peso isn’t too far off from the original, save for a few chef-y tweaks. The Peso version takes liberties by adding house-made beans, pico de gallo, and queso fresco (instead of grated yellow cheddar common in SD taco shops), but the inclusion of the fried papas brings this burrito pretty close to the distinct California-style relative to other Detroit-area offerings.
While Detroit is not currently graced with a full-time, brick and mortar birrieria, this fiery, crimson meat stew with origins in Jalisco is increasingly making appearances on the menus of Mexican eateries in Detroit, thanks to the sizeable number of gente from that state’s highlands who’ve made the Motor City home over the decades. At Peso, co-owner Eddie Vargas pays tribute to his father’s birria de res recipe. Executive chef Antonio Reyna adds a modern touch with a basil jicama slaw and cilantro vinaigrette. Available as a dish, or in burrito, torta, or taco dorado form.
While the pre-Columbian hominy-based stew pozole is pretty much commonplace in most Detroit-area Mexican eateries, it’s most often the deep red, porky version that is more likely to be found around town. Not featured nearly as often is pozole verde, which comes to us from Guerrero. And that’s a real shame. With a much lighter flavor profile, it’s made with tangy ingredients like tomatillos, cilantro, and green chiles. Peso is out to change that by offering a pozole verde with shredded chicken. It’s still got that restorative quality as its rojo counterpart, but with a more refreshing, herbaceous finish. And without as much of the fattiness.
Like many Mexican immigrants who’ve made their way to the United States, Norberto Garita first moved to New York where he worked as a cook in Manhattan for many years. He eventually found himself in Michigan, where he did the same at the then popular Il Posto Ristorante Italiano. It was there that the native of Puebla learned the intricacies of Italian fine dining, which he would later translate onto his own menu at El Barzón and later La Noria Bistro. What he and his crew have been doing with handmade pastas, grilled bronzini, and scallopine alla Marsala at El Barzón is impressive enough alone. But rather than simply sticking to the winning formula at his previous employer, Garita also found a niche by also specializing in cuisine famous in his home state, which is considered one of Mexico’s culinary gems. More recently at his more casual La Noria next door, he continues to blur boundaries with his Italian-Mexican offerings.
Mole poblano (El Barzón)
Considered one of Mexico’s most treasured recipes, mole isn’t entirely commonplace yet in Detroit Mexican restaurants. There’s understandable reason for that. The sauce — typically served atop chicken or turkey or as a base for enchiladas — varies immensely in terms of intricacy. It can take upwards of two weeks and more than 30 ingredients to prepare. Depending on what part of Mexico you’re in, mole ranges in color from yellow, to green, brown, black, and red. The flavor profiles are just as diverse: from sweet, spicy, bitter, chocolatey, or, more likely, a painstakingly balanced combination of tastes. It’s impossible to hold a grudge against any restaurant that lacks mole on its menu. Screw it up and your reputation is tarnished. El Barzón, on the other hand, does its mole poblano impeccably. With a red-brown coloring, the mole poblano strikes a harmony of earthy pasilla chiles, bitter chocolate, nutty pumpkin seeds, and warm coriander.
Chiles en nogada (El Barzon)
Chiles en nogada are Puebla’s homage to la patria Mexicana. And El Barzón is one of the few places in town that makes them. It starts with a poblano chili stuffed with picadillo (a mixture of shredded meat with spices, fruit, and aromatics) that’s covered with an airy nogada — a walnut-based cream sauce — and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. What you get is a gorgeous and flavorful dish in the colors of the Mexican flag.
Cemita (La Noria)
A Poblano classic in the torta family, the cemita is a celebration of deep-fried breaded meat. Milanesa-style meats like pork, beef or chicken are nestled inside a sesame seed-covered, brioche-like bread roll along with shredded queso, avocado, chipotle, and the fragrant Mexican herb pápalo. At La Noria, Oaxaca cheese is the cheese of choice and marinated pork or ham fillings are also available in addition to the milanesa offerings.
This spot is among the many eateries owned and operated by the Jalisco diaspora. While the menu shares some similarities with the longer established Mexican-American restaurants, Los Altos pays closer attention to dishes popular in the western Mexican state.
Among the iconic foods that come out of Jalisco is this “drowned” torta sandwich. Especially popular in Guadalajara, this torta features a marinated and fried pork filling. The sandwich is then dunked in a vinegary tomato-based sauce that’s seasoned with chili de árbol, cumin, and other spices. The crusty bolillo roll soaks up the flavorful juices.
In Detroit, we don’t see a whole lot in the way of Mexican restaurants that focus primarily on seafood. Sure, lots of places serve a few shrimp or seafood cocktails, maybe a whole fried fish, but seafood is not the main draw on the menu at most spots. That started to change when La Terraza opened about 13 years ago to the delight of marisco lovers everywhere. In 2016, Mariscos El Salpicon added to the seafood-centric food scene, with its menu inspired by the coastal state of Nayarit. The region, which borders the Pacific Ocean just north of Jalisco, is especially known for its vast shrimp dishes. At the beach town seafood shack-themed Mariscos El Salpicon, the camarón is honored throughout the menu with a long list of ceviches, tostadas and outrageous cocteles (like the Piña Suprema, a hollowed out pineapple stuffed with shrimp, octopus, scallops, cucumber and a heavy drizzle of chamoy sauce). The restaurant and bar have also expanded to include a night club featuring live music and an ample mix of reggaeton, bachata, banda, and norteño music.
Camarones de cucaracha
Camarones de cucaracha is a specialty of Nayarit and the dish at El Salpicon imparts a smoky and rich flavor. That’s because the shrimp is sautéed in butter, a red chile sauce and vinegar. With a side of garlic bread and one of the spot’s creative micheladas, your meal is complete.
OK, OK, you’re wondering why Armando’s, the unapologetic destination for gargantuan Mexican-American combo platters, is on this list. So bare with us. One of the oldest Mexican restaurants in the city, Armando’s has been a longtime haunt for Tigers players and fans alike and late-night groups getting out of the bars. It’s also home to a pair of regional dishes that are not likely to be seen in any other city — both on the US and Mexican sides. Can you see where we’re going with this?
The botana is as synonymous with Detroit food as the Coney or square pizza and its roots can be traced to 1975, invented by this restaurant’s original owner Armando Galan. The Tex-Mex inspired creation could be mistaken for a plate of nachos, if not for the details. While the Spanish word botana refers generically to any sort of small bite usually served along with beers, the Detroit iteration takes on a very specific definition. It starts with a base of warm tortilla chips that are topped with a chorizo-bean blend, slivers of avocado, onion, and bell pepper, sliced tomatoes, jalepeños, and a gooey layer of Muenster cheese. Over the years, the botana has become available in more and more Detroit-area eateries, each taking on creative twists, like swapping out the chorizo mix for carnitas, lengua, even seafood. But it’s Armando’s that takes credit for its rise in the local food scene.
No, not a torta, but rather a cheesy, meaty behemoth that, at Armando’s, weighs in at a hefty 2 pounds. The Detroit-style Mexican sandwich takes three flour tortillas, stacked, with chunky beef, veggies, beans and more of that melty Muenster cheese. Not exactly kind to the waistline, but a satisfying snack for a handful of buddies trying to sober up after a night of mischief.
Ice Cream La Michoacana
And now on to dessert and for that, we turn to Ice Cream La Michoacana. Barrios across the USA and Mexico are likely to have a La Michoacana ice cream shop of their own. The name has a history that goes back decades. Its origins aren’t quite clear and there have been debates over who started the first La Michoacana, but according to the La Michoacana website, it first came about around 1930 in the town of Tocumbo, in the state of Michoacán. Founder Rafael Malfavón used his shop that went by the name Helados La Michoacana to distribute his paletas to the masses, starting with nearby villages by means of a train of donkeys with wooden boxes. Today, the paleta is a ubiquitous summertime snack and the La Michoacana name has grown as an informal chain with thousands of family-run outlets that have adopted many variations of the moniker all over Latin America. Detroit’s Vernor Highway outpost sits across the street from Clark Park, perfect for grabbing a paleta, raspado, mangonada or other sweet treat and strolling through the park on warm summer evenings.
Put simply, a paleta is a Mexican ice pop, prepared using only natural ingredients like strawberry, coconut, and pineapple. They’re also available with milk, which produces a creamy, fruity sensation (Dreamsicles are nothing compared to a high-quality paleta). At Detroit’s Ice Cream La Michoacana, flavors are available in cajeta (sweet milk), nuez (pecan), arroz (rice), sandia (watermelon), piña colada, as well as with chile.
The provenance of the mangonada is not well established, but what is known is that the classic Mexican snack of chunks of frozen mangos and other fruits drenched in spicy chamoy and Tajin chile seasoning has been a staple of fruterías, streetside food stalls, and paleterias in Mexico and U.S. barrios for years, including at Ice Cream La Michoacana.
Look, we know we haven’t covered the regional Mexican food landscape in its entirety, but we can say that we’ve taken painstaking lengths to represent a wide variety of regional cuisine throughout the city. If you have entrees you’d like to see on our list, by all means, let us know so we can update this guide to its fullest potential.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is the co-founder and head chingona of Tostada Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit and specializes on the intersection of food, identity, and culture.
Find her on Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!