It’s always busy during lunch at Taqueria Mi Pueblo. Almost every day, all three of its dining areas are full of Detroiters of all types: businesspeople holding power lunches, construction workers on breaks, and young Chicano families with toddlers in tow.
Some come to share a plate of arguably the best chicharrónes and salsa roja in town. Others swear by Mi Pueblo’s gigantic tortas made with fresh bolillo rolls from a local panaderia. Still others are drawn to the shareable botana, an appetizer similar to nachos loaded with a uniquely Detroit combination of condiments. In addition to the standard chorizo, Mi Pueblo’s botana can be topped with substitutes like carnitas, al pastor, lengua (beef tongue), or even cabeza (cow’s head). On weekends, Mi Pueblo specializes in an array of Mexico’s famously soothing soups, like comfortingly fatty, tripe-rich menudo, pozole abundant in nutty hominy, or fiery red birria — the goat or beef stew made famous in Jalisco, the Mexican state where a large share of Detroit Mexicanos hail from.
It wasn’t long ago, though, that Mi Pueblo was just a house on Dix Street in Southwest Detroit that sat next to a dilapidated Coney Island — Detroit’s version of a diner.
“We sold tacos on the weekend in the house just for family and friends without having any permits or anything,” says Mi Pueblo owner Jose DeJesus Lopez.
Mi Pueblo is among a handful of eateries in Southwest Detroit that got their start as home-based food businesses.
For generations, food makers all over Mexico have turned their home kitchens into informal eateries called comida corridas — “restaurants” with limited hours and limited menus serving three or four homestyle courses to friends, family members, and neighbors.
In Southwest Detroit, other popular restaurants that started out in a similar fashion include Taqueria El Rey, Camino Real (owned by one of Lopez’s brothers, Alfonso), and Mariscos El Salpicon, a seafood restaurant, bar, and nightclub serving seafood in the style of the Nayarit region of Mexico that got its start as a food truck.
For Lopez, 54, the first hint that food would lead him to the American dream came when he was a kid in Mexico City. Originally from Jesus Maria, a town in the rural highlands of Jalisco, his family originally worked in farming. When money in agriculture began to decline, his family relocated to Mexico City in search of more lucrative opportunities. Between the ages of 8 and 14, Lopez was a dishwasher at a taqueria where his father and siblings also worked.
At 14, Lopez dropped out of high school and moved back to the country to work in farming and lived with his mother. Meanwhile, his dad and most of his 11 siblings immigrated to Detroit, like many in the jalisciense diaspora. Once he turned 17, Lopez joined them. At first, he took a night-shift janitor job, and then settled into working construction.
Inspired by comidas corridas, Lopez, his cousin, and one of his brothers started their restaurant around 1995 as a means of making extra cash on the weekends. With a simple menu of tacos made in the kitchen, the family primarily served a small circle of friends and family in the living room of Lopez’s cousin’s apartment on the upper level of a two-story bungalow on Dix — the location that would eventually become Mi Pueblo.
At the time, the weekends-only spot was one of only a few taquerias in Detroit, Lopez says. Among the other casual taco-focused restaurants in town were Lupita’s and the now-closed La Tapatia. Until they opened, a vast majority of the city’s Mexican restaurants specialized in Mexican-American cuisine, with hefty, cheesy combo platters made up of entrees like chimichangas accompanied by rice and beans. For the most part, these established restaurants, like Armando’s, Xochimilco, and Mexican Village, were concentrated closer to downtown, in what’s known as Mexicantown; they had table service and served mostly hard-shell tacos with ground beef filling, lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream, along with dishes like enchiladas and tostadas.
The tacos at Mi Pueblo used smaller, soft corn tortillas, served warm straight from the comal. Instead of iceberg lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes, they had diced onion, cilantro, a smidge of lime juice, and maybe a dash of salt on top — and more attention was paid to their meat fillings, which emphasized regional specialties like suadero — a smooth cut of fried beef — or lengua.
The underground restaurant quickly resonated with locals.
Among its early followers was Steve Limas, who learned about the spot when Lopez hired him as a plumber when the restaurant was still a house. Limas said he was suspicious of the place initially because of the constant flow of people coming in and out of the address through the back door. To show Limas what was going on there, Lopez served him a plate of his popular tacos de lengua and suadero.
“From that point forward, I fell in love with those tacos,” says Limas, 57. “Everything about them, the way they’re prepared — I was just hooked on the food.”
With this newly converted band of fans — Lopez says he would easily sell 1,000 tacos a day on a typical weekend — he and his relatives began saving the taqueria’s profits to transform the spot from a house to full-service restaurant, all while he continued to work his job in construction. By 1998, it was clear that Lopez needed to switch gears, career-wise. “I told my boss, ‘Look, I’ve got this dream,’” he recalls.
The restaurant would need bigger digs to expand its menu-offerings, and to ensure all dishes were made from scratch each day. To make way for a bigger kitchen and dining area, Lopez turned his attention to the old Coney next door and merged the two properties. In 2000, Mi Pueblo became a full-scale, licensed restaurant.
Mi Pueblo caught the attention of the Free Press, which, in a 2000 review, marveled at its style of tacos, writing: “At many so-called Mexican restaurants, you can barely tell the difference among the items on your combo platter because all are seasoned the same. Not so at Mi Pueblo, where herbs and spices, peppers and onions contribute to a mix of flavors that challenge and delight the taste buds.”
The rave review turned more people onto the place.
Today, the interior of Mi Pueblo hardly resembles a house, although the yellow upper level of the bungalow still peeks out from the top. The dining area and bar are inviting, with a hodgepodge of kitschy Mexican paintings, alongside reprints by iconic Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The expanded space easily accommodates the throngs of customers who swarm in during lunch and dinner.
The menu is now a medley of those original tacos, in addition to some of Lopez’s favorite dishes from Jalisco, like birria. There are also Mexico City-inspired tortas, seafood dishes from the coastal regions, and plenty of the Mexican-American staples that Detroiters have known for decades, like cheesy enchiladas and wet burritos smothered in a choice of salsa.
Mi Pueblo continues to be a family-owned business, with Lopez’s sister Genoveva Gutierrez, who helped expand beyond the eatery’s taco beginnings, still in the kitchen; his adult daughter Karina as a manager; as well as a nephew, Alfonso Muñoz.
Mi Pueblo shows no signs of slowing down. Around the beginning of this year, an express takeout version of Mi Pueblo opened across the street, which offers an abbreviated menu to cater to folks who are in a rush or getting out of bars or nightclubs. Lopez’s son, Andres, is the express taqueria’s general manager. There’s even talk about adding taco trucks into the mix, thus expanding the Mi Pueblo footprint beyond its Southwest Detroit beginnings.
Whatever plans are in the future for Mi Pueblo, Lopez doesn’t want to stray away from the restaurant’s humble beginnings.
“Our customers feel like they’re eating at home. I can tell. I can tell because these dishes, they fly out of the place every day,” says Lopez.
As a fan, Limas agrees. Born and raised in metro Detroit, Limas never learned Spanish, though his father was originally from the Mexican state of Durango. Even if the language wasn’t passed down to him, Limas says it’s the food — especially from Mi Pueblo — that keeps him connected to his heritage.
“It always reminded my of my grandmother’s kitchen,” he says.
Serena Daniels is a freelance writer and editor of Tostada Magazine.
Edited by Eater Detroit editor Brenna Houck and Eater city editor Missy Frederick with copy editing by Emma Alpern.