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A headshot of a man wearing a blue plaid shirt and glasses, sitting, and smiling. Chuk Nowak

Casa Amado and Bar Pigalle Are Giving Guisados the Fine Dining Treatment

These metro Detroit chefs are drawing from Mexican ancestral tradition and ingredients to inform the future of fine dining

Serena Maria Daniels is the editor for Eater Detroit.

For chef Amado Lopez, owner of Casa Amado, guisados are foundational.

A staple of Mexican home cookery that loosely translates in English to “stew,” slow-cooked guisados come in myriad forms, from mole, chile rellenos, and chicken tinga, to chile colorado and chuletas en chile verde. And they serve as the basis for many of the tacos that Lopez churns out at Casa Amado, his three-year old restaurant in the former Atomic Dawg spot in Berkley.

Lopez’s guisados have become an essential salve for inner ring suburbanites to access a legit taqueria, while helping the Zacatecas-born, Chicago-raised chef to secure his name on the long list for Emerging Chef by the James Beard Awards.

Now, Lopez is ready to give his acclaimed guisados a French twist. He and longtime friend and colleague, chef Norm Valenti will host a pair of multi-course pop-ups on Sunday, February 4, at Bar Pigalle in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood. Two seatings are available, at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Tickets go for $85 and must be purchased in advance. For the menu, Lopez is departing from his taqueria’s menu for a number of cheffy guisados: short ribs with pickled ox tongue braised in mole Zacatecano and epazote-braised mushroom tacos in handmade heirloom blue corn tortillas. Other specialties that he doesn’t always get to make from his Berkley taqueria include scallops and nopales soaked in a bath of citrusy aguachile and a tres leches cake jazzed up with panna cotta, dulce de leche, compressed mango, and mint oil.

For Lopez, the fancy pop-up is just the next step in a cooking journey that started in his teens when the legendary, late Charlie Trotter took him under his wing and sent him from the South Side of Chicago to the upper echelons of fine dining. He is among a growing number of Mexican American chefs in the Midwest — and increasingly in metro Detroit — and across the United States who are drawing from ancestral tradition and ingredients to inform the future of fine dining.

“I wanted to sort of introduce a fresh set of eyes to Mexican cuisine,” Lopez tells Eater Detroit.

Lopez’s career in restaurants began in his teens living in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. He attended a vocational high school where he enrolled in a culinary program that would change the trajectory of his life forever. The experience got him connected with one of the most influential Chicago chefs in a generation, Trotter, who hired the young teen to work at his Lincoln Park restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, during summers in the late 1990s. Lopez, now 42, says he would come in each morning and, under the direction of then-sous chef Reginald Watkins (Trotter’s first employee, who helped to train countless Chicago chefs and cement the Windy City’s reputation as a culinary destination before his death in 2020 at the age of 65). Watkins impressed upon the young chef the importance of familiarizing himself with the kitchen’s plethora of fresh ingredients.

Lopez stayed on at the restaurant another year after high school. When it was time for Trotter’s young protege to consider his next steps, the elder chef urged him to go to culinary school.

“I said, ‘Chef, I don’t have money for culinary school’ — [I came from] very humble, humble beginnings,” says Lopez. “He says, ‘Don’t worry about the money, just make sure that you buy a car.’” So Lopez turned to another mentor, Curtis Duffy (who’s gone on to head Chicago’s Michelin-starred Ever), who sold him an old Toyota Corolla, which he drove from the Midwest straight to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

That vote of confidence would lead to other opportunities in Chicago, including a stint with Rick Bayless, the American chef who is largely credited for introducing the Midwest to modern Mexican in the 1980s and who earned a Michelin star for his fine dining establishment Topolobampo.

Lopez and his family — he’s married to a native Michigander and has four children — relocated to metro Detroit about nine years ago, so that relatives could provide childcare support. That’s where he met Valenti, then executive chef for locally-based Plum Market. Lopez took a corporate job with the company, which provided his family with stability.

By 2020, Lopez was searching for spaces in metro Detroit where he could build a place of his own — this time informed by his own Mexican upbringing. In 2021, Lopez and friend/co-owner Emilia Juocys opened Casa Amado in the space formerly occupied by the Atomic Dawg. The eatery has a small, open kitchen, requiring Lopez to get creative with how he uses space. Hence: the guisado. Unlike carne asada, which is typically cooked on a grill, or the trompo used to make the marinated pork for tacos al pastor — both of which take up real estate in a kitchen — not much more space is required for cooking a good guisado than a big pot and a stovetop.

Valenti is currently the chef at the Eater Award-winning Bar Pigalle. He took the helm in April 2023, replacing opening chef Nyle Flynn. As soon as Valenti and Lopez had the opportunity to reconnect in the kitchen, they jumped at the chance. “He’s an extremely talented cook with a great pedigree, and I’m excited to see what happens,” says Valenti. As for what Lopez is doing over at Casa Amado and with this pop-up, Valenti sees it as a natural progression.

“It’s not just tacos and tequila anymore,” says Valenti of how Mexican is represented in the culinary world. “I think that’s what he’s striving for, and what he’s trying to do to carve out his own place in the Detroit culinary scene.”

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