Steak fajitas sizzling on a cast iron skillet. Crunchy Tacos El Dorado, piled high with shredded cheddar and iceberg lettuce. And a heaping botana platter . . . Wait, what's a botana? I have to admit, growing up in Southern California, perhaps the most Mexican region of the United States, I had to look up the definition of botana the first time I saw it on the menu at a restaurant in Mexicantown. I also did a double take when I saw nopales (cactus) and scrambled eggs, as well as chimichangas, which I thought were like those imitation burritos you find in the frozen food section.
"Serena, you're not in LA anymore, just let it go," I constantly reminded myself in my first years in Detroit when I was invited to lunch with co-workers at the many restaurants that dot Bagley Avenue.
Indeed, Detroit Mexican food is a special hybrid of traditions that include Tex-Mex, street-style taquerias, and American ingenuity. This time of year with Cinco de Mayo festivities in full swing, Detroiters are inevitably flocking to Mexicantown staples like Mexican Village, Xochimilco Restaurant, or El Zocalo. The menus at these places are almost identical, all heavy on the bubbling, melted cheese, canned refried beans, and some variation of a deep-fried, folded or rolled corn tortilla filled with ground beef and topped with a salad garnish. I have to admit that in my LA/Mexican snobbery, I couldn't shake the question, "would Detroiters even known real Mexican cuisine if they saw it?"
"I find it very troublesome that some of these newcomers are coming into an old, established community and trying to rewrite history."
Over the years, I've learned that yes, Detroiters definitely know the food and they have a deep love affair with these Mexicantown restaurants that spans generations. Time and time again, I hear the same stories: trips into the city growing up weren't complete without dinner at Xochimilco. When I wrote a piece last fall discussing the struggles New Center restaurant Zenith was having serving Mexican out of the Fisher Building, Detroiters were up in arms with the restaurateur's assumption that locals didn't know what real Mexican food was. And as I've explored some of the newer establishments — El Nacimiento on Vernor Highway near Central and the many taco trucks along Springwells — I've come to appreciate that this cuisine has a long, complicated, yet no less tasty history in Detroit.
For insight, I turned to the woman who literally wrote the book about Mexicantown history, Maria Elena Rodriguez. A Mexicana, foodie, and lifelong Metro Detroiter who grew up in the city's Delray neighborhood, Rodriguez says when the first Mexican restaurants were opening up in the 1930s, they were afraid of how their traditional recipes would be received by locals. Across the country, particularly in the American Southwest where my family hails, Mexican Americans faced deep discrimination for much of the first half of the 20th century. If your name was Alberto, you maybe went by Al. If you spoke Spanish, better to keep it at home, or better yet, just speak English. So really, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the cuisine here was "dumbed down," as Rodriguez puts it.
That approach, though, worked and Mexicantown, back in the day known as "La Bagley," became an established neighborhood, where Detroiters and Canadians in nearby Windsor could enjoy a cheesy enchilada plate before heading over to old Tiger Stadium.
"When these places first opened their doors, Mexican food was foreign to the mainstream, so they found a formula that worked, and it's continued to work all these years," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez says Detroit got its first real taste of authentic Mexican street food in the '90s when places like Taqueria Lupita's opened up. Instead of fried taco shells and ground beef, Detroiters were experiencing carne asada, tacos al pastor, and tacos de lengua for the first time. And now that gentrification is slowly making its way into Southwest Detroit, some locals are hoping to see a revamped effort to bring more modern and authentic Mexican dishes into the area.
One such local is Todd Johnson, who's been frequenting Mexicantown since the 1970s. On a recent trip to Zocalo's, he lamented on Facebook that he wished Xochimilco's across the street would put a little more effort into its signage, what with several bulbs flickering on and off, looking like a tired relic.
"I can't argue with their success, they obviously know how to reach their core market, but I don't think they've graduated (to the next level)," says Johnson, a marketing expert.
As Detroiters' tastes become ever more sophisticated and as the push for gentrification in the Southwest area continues, with developments like the Our/Detroit distillery popping up, the question is what, if anything, should these Mexicantown staples do to change with the times?
Rodriguez says it best, I think.
"They just need to stand their ground. I find it very troublesome that some of these newcomers are coming into an old, established community and trying to rewrite history. Instead, try to be respectful of it," she says.
So on this Cinco de Mayo, I say saludos to you Mexicantown, for providing Detroiters a Mexican cuisine to call their own.