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Lorenzo Lopez stirs his enchilada sauce as part of his cooking demonstration at Casa de Rosado.
Bringing People Together
At Casa de Rosado, more than a dozen are gathered to watch Latino activist Lorenzo Lopez demonstrate on how he cooks his signature enchiladas. It has the atmosphere of a lighthearted cooking show, sangria is poured and tortilla chips with salsa — made with Lopez’s own recipe — are served. Many interject with jokes as Lopez proceeds with his instructions and laughs are shared.
When the food is served and the forks finally connect with the soft, warm chicken-filled tortillas doused with the homemade enchilada sauce, everyone seems immediately elated.
The day was a great opportunity to learn more about what makes Mexican food so endearing to so many. A sort of microcosm of Mexican cuisine’s ability to bring people together with its dishes that provide infinitely unique flavors, with seemingly no one true method of preparation. For several attendees, it was a great opportunity to learn.
“I am not Latino, so I have everything to learn. It’s hard if you don’t know the ins and outs — having to try every single restaurant,” said Jessica Bibbee. “I think it’s important for everyone to know what goes into the food and to know a little bit about the history and techniques.”
Every family regardless of regional roots in Mexico seems to have its own take on how to make tamales, tacos, burritos — each incorporating different sauces, meats and cheeses. So, it’s almost impossible to nail down a single recipe as the single true “authentic” way.
“The concept of an enchilada is universal. But how you prepare the sauce, which tortilla you use and what you put in it is your own choice. It’s not right or wrong,” Lopez said. “When you say things like, ‘None of them get it right,’ well they get it right according to them.”
Lopez elaborated that the history of several Mexican dishes go so far back in time, and involve so much assimilation and commodification between different cultures, that making the distinction of an original recipe is nearly impossible.
“What is today’s modern Mexican food originated thousands of years ago with all of the indigenous cultures that thrive in what is now Mexico. Before the Europeans came, all of those indigenous groups had their own cuisine,” Lopez said.
Add a healthy dose of regional traditions and it gets even more complex.
“The cool thing about Mexican cuisine is there’s a lot of dishes that can vary from a lot of different areas — let’s say southern Mexico or northern Mexico,” said Victor Banda, owner of the Taquero Mucho food truck. “Then there’s the street style, which is the street tacos you can find in the city at any little food stand in Mexico.”
Restaurants in Town
But there’s always a discussion among Lansing eaters about how Americanized dishes rank up with the traditional Mexican methods. The access Lansing has to great authentic Mexican food is palpable — there are countless local options beyond Taco Bell or QDoba.
Mexican food restaurateurs in Lansing are happy to prepare the original recipes and also provide the versions many Americans have grown accustomed to via these massive chain operations.
“We didn’t want to separate ourselves with authentic and American styles. We wanted to mix it up; we wanted to set it up so our customers could choose. They can see what both styles are like at the same time,” said Jorge Vera, manager and co-owner of Acapulco Mexican Grill, in Frandor.
Food has always been central in Vera’s household, whether while growing up in Guanajuato, in Central Mexico, or after his family moved to Lansing and started the Cancun Mexican Grill chain of restaurants across Mid-Michigan and now Acapulco.
“Growing up in Mexico, everywhere you go — the first thing they do is ask you if you want to eat. As you walk in the house they are like, ‘Oh, you’re hungry, you want to eat?’” Vera said.
Vera’s favorite restaurant besides his own? Pablo’s Old Town Mexican Restaurant.
Pablo Maldonado outside of Pablo's Old Town Mexican Restaurant.
Pablo Maldonado opened Pablo’s in 2005 after looking to purchase a mixer to make bread to sell to his friends as a side business to his truck-driving career. Upon meeting with a woman selling her mixer, he learned she was selling everything — all the equipment and the building itself.
“My main focus is to give the customer what they want. If I go somewhere and eat, I expect the best,” Maldonado said. “Why would I give somebody something that I don’t like it? That’s the most important part.”
Maldonado himself has felt the growth in popularity in Mexican food, noticing the increase in customers that aren’t Latin or Hispanic.
“A lot of people who aren’t Mexican that prefer good Mexican food,” Maldonado said. “Most of my customers are from other countries, especially Americans.”
“I eat at Pablo’s and I feel like I am back home,” Vera said.
Alongside Pablo’s, another favorite of many is Aldaco’s Taco Bar, opened in 1995 by Juvencio Aldaco. After Famous Taco, which opened in 1968, it’s Lansing’s oldest, still-running Mexican restaurant.
Aldaco’s Taco Bar was born when Juvencio tried to offer advertising to a restaurant, only to be told by the owner that it was hemorrhaging money and that would he sell it to him on the spot for $5,000.
Juvencio took him up on it, returning home and letting his family know he planned to purchase a restaurant. As he knew little about the food industry, Juvencio’s family stepped in. Juvencio’s son Daniel said the recipes all came from his stepmother, Maria. Aldaco’s Taco Bar would open that New Year’s Day.
“My stepmom got the recipes from her mom, and I learned them too. Basically, all of the recipes from Aldaco’s come from our family,” Daniel Aldaco said.
Having been in the business for more than two decades, Aldaco’s Taco Bar has been subject to the changing landscape of Mexican food. Still, Daniel maintains the clientele has been steady; he’s just noticed that more people of different backgrounds visiting the restaurant.
“When we were in Old Town when we first opened, it was more Hispanic people — now it’s everyone,” Daniel said.
Tacos Monterrey is a newcomer to the scene. Owner Ismael Alejandro Puente Rodriguez based the concept off his mother Alejandra’s food truck in Monterrey, Mexico, and felt he could do a lot of things better than the restaurants he had been working for.
“When it is real, authentic Mexican food, you are going to know it when you are tasting the food,” Rodriguez said. “You can taste artificial flavors; artificial seasonings — you can detect when something is cooked fresh daily and hasn’t been frozen for days or weeks.”
Since he moved to Lansing in 2010, Rodriguez said the scene has grown handily.
“In the past four years, I’ve seen a lot of new Mexican restaurants come to Lansing.”
A big purveyor of Mexican food culture trends for Lansing has been the food truck. Mexican food, with many of its hallmarks easily prepared on a flattop griddle, is conducive to the mobile restaurant formula.
Victor Banda’s Taquero Mucho is one of the new trucks that earned some fanfare in 2018.
“You don’t really need an upscale restaurant to bring out the good flavors in Mexican food,” Banda said.
Taquero Mucho’s dishes are directly inspired by the food Banda’s mother prepared for him as a child.
“The basic idea of opening up a food truck was a dream my mother had. It was something I wanted to do for her,” Banda said.
It’s a common thread for many Mexican restaurants in Lansing, especially the food trucks.
El Oasis — often seen as the crown jewel not just for Lansing food trucks but Lansing restaurants in general (Mexican or not) — shares a similar history. Its current owner, Ricardo Gutierrez, took over for his mother after he graduated from East Lansing High School.
“The recipes have stayed in the family from generation to generation. We make family style meals,” Gutierrez said.
The fact these trucks are able to survive in such inclement weather — Taquero Mucho reopens March 1 after facing the brunt of the polar vortex — is a testament to the love Lansing has grown for them.
“We appreciate it and that’s why we’re here. We may not be as cold, but we’re still chilly. We still got to come here and shovel the snow,” Gutierrez said. “People are loyal; we appreciate everybody and respect them.”