Northern Foodies, Meet Southern Goodies

The Best Latin-Inspired Cuisines in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Mark Heidelberger
12 min readJan 11, 2021
Photo by Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash

A s you wind through the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, it’s easy to see influences of the rich and diverse history that helped give it shape, taking it from an early 19th century trading post to the bustling metropolis it is today. The city’s legacy as a major lumbering center is enshrined in the florid mansions of old timber barons in the Heritage Hill neighborhood, while traditional pow-wows along the Grand River Banks and bronze statues of Potawatomi chiefs pay homage to a local culture steeped in Native American ancestry. Grand Rapids is a proud city, to be sure, celebrating its past through fanciful and nostalgic expressions in the present.

Food and drink, mind you, are no exception. A local brewing scene that thrived a century ago before being decimated by Prohibition has been revived, with more than 75 craft breweries sprouting up since 1997, giving Grand Rapids the apropos nickname “Beer City.” Likewise, the GR Downtown Market is a vibrant piazza flush with cafés, classes, kitchens and counters offering the finest in farm-fresh produce and locally sourced seafood. And a swarm of eclectic urban eateries make it no small wonder that Tasting Table called Kent’s county seat “one of the Midwest’s most legit culinary cities.”

Yet despite this percolating foodie oasis in the heart of Water Wonderland, it was difficult not to notice a curious absence in restaurants specializing in what has gradually become a perennial American favorite: Latin-inspired cuisines. Not that you couldn’t find an enchilada or quesadilla with just a short stride down Division Avenue, but that the dearth of quality meant relegation to cookie-cutter Mexi-American chains or inauspicious hole-in-the-wall strip mall-type joints. It seemed that with all of that rich cultural and culinary history, none of it had yet matriculated from South of the Border.

Not until recently, that is. In the last seven or eight years, a modest cadre of visionary chefs have begun bringing bona fide Latin fare to Grand Rapids, sporting authentic signature recipes and progressive fusion concoctions that make your taste buds want to dance a jig. This is not to say a comestible revolution is on the horizon, but at the very least it ensures the city stays true to its “legit culinary” status by doing things in the space that make its Midwestern neighbors sit up and take notice.

MeXo

118 Fulton Street East

Grand Rapids, MI 49503

(616) 828–4123

www.mexogr.com

When you first approach MeXo (pronounced “Mezzo”), you’re greeted by a rather unassuming white brick, one-story structure, wedged between the historical Loraine Building and a parking lot. However, two giant signs emblazoned over towering glass windows — one reading “Tequila” and the other “Mezcal” — offer promise for what’s inside. Cruise through the front door and you immediately notice a large, inviting dark wood bar where much of the liquid magic happens. The walls are replete with colorful pop art and paintings by real Mexican artists depicting everything from Frida Kahlo to baile folklórico, capping off what’s otherwise a fairly minimalist décor.

The place has a relaxed, beguiling charm to it, beckoning families and coworkers and groups of friends to come soak in its clean, casual atmosphere. This may seem curious at first though because the food, billed as “Prehispanic Modern Mexican” by Puerto Vallarta native and MeXo owner Chef Oscar Moreno, is essentially Mexico’s answer to French haute cuisine. Energized by concepts from other renowned chefs like Rick Bayless out of Chicago, Moreno has put together a refined, mouthwatering menu inspired by pre-colonial Mayan recipes that dominated the Yucatan before the influence of Spanish settlers in the early 16th century. This he refers to as “fine casual.”

Photo by Roberto Carlos Roman on Unsplash

What does that mean? Well, you won’t find any burritos and chimichangas here. More to the point, everything’s not smothered in cheese. You’ll notice a greater variety of wild game and seafood than at traditional Mexican eateries. Dried chiles and produce get flown in from Mexico to make fresh guac and salsa in Mayan-style stone bowls, while authentic tortillas and tamales are created from a maize-based dough. Dishes are well composed and complex, eschewing the simple street food reputation borne from taco shops and tapas bars. “You get that street-style Mexican food everywhere,” says general manager Drew Frerichs, “but our whole thing is bringing a kind of higher-end element to the food and showing people that Mexican cuisines can stand up to classic French or Italian food.”

Brunch, lunch and dinner menus are all separate and independent, as one might expect from a restaurant serving elevated cuisine, and Frerichs claims certain items have emerged as fan favorites among the patrons. Sunday brunch boasts a menu spawned from Chef Oscar’s memories of his own grandma’s cooking, with items that include a traditional red chorizo (made in-house, of course), an earthy huevos motuleños dish with a Yucatan slaw, and even a Mexican version of French toast. For lunch, the best bets are the Oaxacan chile relleno made with a gluten-free batter and pork or veggie tamals (kind of like matzo dough sandwiches), the latter of which features a rare corn-based delicacy called cuitlacoche.

Moreno has put together a refined, mouthwatering menu inspired by pre-colonial Mayan recipes that dominated the Yucatan before the influence of Spanish settlers in the early 16th century.

The pièce de résistance, though, is the seductive dinner menu with a bevy of eye-catching entrees, nearly all defined by a balance of modern flair and ancient tradition. The salmon Veracruzana, with its goat milk-pressed fillet doused in xitomati sauce with capers and grilled baby zucchini, is perhaps the most Euro-centric thing you’ll see, but it’s all Prehispanic after that. Popular plates include the roasted pheasant in a pipian green mole with fried plantains and a cactus leaf salad, and the cochinita pibil, which is smoldered pork shoulder braised in a salt crust and achiote marinade.

Once you’ve decided on your meal, ask your server what tequila- or mezcal-based beverages she might recommend to accentuate the whole experience. Don’t be shy; they have 140 different agave spirits. And just like the French proclivity to pair vinos with vittles, Chef Oscar advocates for the pairing of agave-based liquors with his culinary creations, even going so far as to tailor drinks to the food menu. Signature cocktails range from an Oaxacan old fashioned to a MeXo mimosa to a sweet and savory Tamarind mezcal mixture, all of which are house-made using traditional Mexican syrups and artisan techniques without the involvement of uber-techy tequila diffusers.

After indulging in the main course, loosen a few notches on the old belt, because the experience won’t be complete without sampling one of the menu’s delectable desserts, which might just have you believing the 13 layers of Mayan heaven are real. While Frerichs readily admits the jericallas (a traditional cinnamon custard) and flourless chocolate torte are among the biggest sellers, he doesn’t hold back on revealing where his own heart lies. “My favorite thing in terms of dessert would definitely be the quatro leches cake.” When pressed about the four-milk mixture that elevates the creaminess quotient above its more common tres leches cousin, he responds with a chuckle, “Yeah, we’re turning our amps up to 11.” With all of the innovations coming out of MeXo, that almost seems like an understatement.

Luna

64 Ionia Avenue SW, #100

Grand Rapids, MI 49503

(616) 288–6340

www.lunagr.com

Not more than a seven-minute stroll from MeXo is another innovative culinary establishment bent on rewriting the narrative when it comes to Latin-inspired cuisines. Mario Cascante’s brainchild, Luna, which debuted in the fall of 2015, epitomizes the moon’s essence — natural, beautiful, powerful. Just as the moon reflects light, so too do Luna’s dishes flaunt simple yet intense flavors that reflect our life experiences. According to Cascante, “Luna is the love child of Latin American and Western Michigan cultures, which are best mixed beneath a shared light.” Too deep for you? That’s because you haven’t eaten there yet.

Outside, Luna sits nestled along a red, brick-lined street that somehow feels equal parts downtown big-city urban and small-town main street America. Across the way, the imposing Van Andel Arena stands guard, enticing Griffin fans to mosey on over after a game for chips, queso and a mango margarita, whether to celebrate a big win or forget a bad loss. Inside is what initially feels like a hipster’s den with its distressed brick walls, dangling light bulbs, and unfinished ceiling complete with exposed steel pipe. But a cursory glance around reveals diners from all walks of life, from young metropolitan professionals to mom-and-dad date nights to meemaw and the grand-kiddies. And everyone seems to be smiling.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

What makes for the convivial vibe? It all starts with the food, natch. Patrons are treated to a menu rife with flavor-filled favorites, starting with appetizers like elote, wild-caught white fish ceviche, and chicken flautas smothered in a poblano crema. Once the salivary glands are thoroughly activated, it’s time to move on to the main course, with titillating options like pork leg tortas, tamales de rajas, Mexican truffle quesadillas, and Michigan-raised shrimp (camaron) tacos or tostadas, all served on no-frills metal trays. Sides include chile toreado (fire-roasted jalapeno) and a side of sour cream and cheese comically named a “gringo plate.” More in the mood for sopas than tapas? The chicken pozole’s veggies, hominy and house-made broth are just what the doctor ordered. Don’t eat meat or any of its relatives? Their organic quinoa salad is perfectly tailored to GR’s fledgling vegan scene.

The farm-to-fork feel of each plate is a testament to Cascante’s unwavering commitment to working with independent farmers, producers and distributors rather than large mass-market guys in order to support the regional economy and create tastes that are distinctive to the area. Take their version of tacos árabes, a pineapple-marinated pork and salsa dish inspired from the Puebla region of Mexico. DeVries Meats in Coopersville supplies the pig, Hudsonville’s Mud Lake Farm sends the veggies and El Milagro in Clyde Park can be thanked for the tortillas. Moreover, the fish selection changes daily based on market availability. This freshness pledge means week-old trout’s not being thawed from the freezer.

Next, open that drink menu and feast your eyes on a bevy of artisanal libations whipped up from top-shelf reposados and mezcals. Or explore your fruity side with a sangria, strawberry basil mojito or lavender whisky sour. Need something with a bit more bite to complement that char-crusted strip steak fajita? Tammy Swanson I and II are a couple of bourbon-based drinks that may or may not have been named for Nick Offerman’s ex on Parks and Recreation, each of which employ tart partners like rhubarb, Corazón bitters and caramelized orange. For the alcohol averse, all-natural Mexican sodas made with real cane sugar are a sure bet.

The farm-to-fork feel of each plate is a testament to Cascante’s unwavering commitment to working with independent farmers, producers and distributors… in order to support the regional economy and create tastes that are distinctive to the area.

The dessert section, in keeping with the restaurant’s more humorous notes, is titled “Happy Endings” and features two choices: first, a coconut flan using house-crafted custard, caramel and mint that forgoes the cloying saccharinity of less sophisticated after-meal fare, and second, a rotating dessert by the folks at nearby Field & Fire Café that all but ensures a new experience every time you drop in.

Of course, not everything’s fun and games. They do take their menu quite seriously and have a policy against making substitutions except in the case of severe dietary restrictions or an allergy to some ingredient. Moreover, several dishes are only served raw or cooked to order. While these rules may at first seem a bit draconian, remember that each recipe was designed to maximize the oral experience by balancing sapidity, acidity, saltiness, spice and sweetness. A devotion to this design ensures the chef’s vision remains unvarnished and helps maintain the street cred that has quickly made Luna a local go-to spot for authentic Latin cuisine.

Righteous Cuisine

211 North 7th Street

Grand Haven, MI 49417

(616) 516–9194

www.righteouscuisine.net

Looking for a small respite from GR’s downtown hustle and flow? Hop in your hoopty, set the cruise control and head west on I-96 toward Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline. It’s just a mere 35 minutes to the idyllic neighboring city of Grand Haven, home to sandy alabaster beaches, marinas dotted with Chris-Crafts, and a boardwalk jutting out to two historical lighthouses. For lunch, take a detour down North 7th to Righteous Cuisine, Chef Matthew Varley’s brainchild that fuses traditional Mexican recipes with a touch of Texas BBQ. But don’t blink or you might miss it. The cozy little box-like building is situated on a quiet tree-lined street, partially obscured by the foliage of a leafy maple.

You’ll know you’ve found it when you see an image of their unofficial mascot adorning the front window — a steer skull with a floral skull-candy eye. Inside is the sort of hyper-casual environment one might expect from the outside. A colorful chalkboard menu announces the day’s fare — what general manager Jon Lepke calls “Mexi-Q” — which features both perennial and seasonal dishes. Customers order at the counter underneath the watchful eye of a real wall-mounted steer skull and can opt to take their grub to a table, to the bar or to go. Moreover, the prep process is highly transparent. “We have a completely open kitchen,” says Lepke, “so the customer can see us putting the food together.”

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

So, what does Mexi-Q look like? According to Varley, who got his start making sauces at the JW Marriott, it’s not so much fusion as the culmination of authentic Mexican recipes with a bit of Texas flair. “This is my own little unique niche, and I found it through my love of truly authentic Mexican food and the smoking of meats,” he says. “I try to keep it completely timeless. I don’t want it to be a fad. When done right, it’s not going to go out of style.” Not only was Varley careful not to debase the Mexican culture with his creations, but he wanted to abjure from the practice of swapping out key ingredients for reasons of convenience that might otherwise make his dishes feel inauthentic.

The result was a menu filled with tantalizing choices like truffle potatoes and Brussels sprout chips served with liquid queso, pork butt slathered in Guajillo barbecue, citrus shrimp tacos with pickled watermelon, and a beef brisket slow-cooked in a maple wood smoker then topped with a tomatillo salsa and corn puree. Vegan options include quinoa sloppy joes and summer squash-zucchini tostadas. Several items tend to rotate with the seasons, whether it be a torched queso-and-chorizo fondue served in a pumpkin as a limited autumn offering or a simple swapping of the crispy pork belly burrito’s summer-esque peach salsa with a more winter-friendly apple butter version.

Perhaps most popular are the Righteous nachos, served as a half or full order, comprising house-made chips, pico and a unique four-sauce blend, topped with chicken, braised beans and shredded cheese, then hit with a blowtorch a la Crème brûlée. Patrons can then wash it all down with a Big Sky soda or tall glass of Horchata. Sorry, no alcohol though. (Yet.) However, you can certainly pair your favorite menu items with an ice-cold Grand Armory lager or other regional craft beer if you catch their food truck at any of the many local events they attend, as the truck’s menu is highly similar to the restaurant’s.

[Chef Varley] wanted to abjure from the practice of swapping out key ingredients for reasons of convenience that might otherwise make his dishes feel inauthentic.

Varley and his squad take pride in the fact that all of their ingredients are sourced locally. “If it’s local and we can put it on our menu, we love doing so,” says Lepke. “Working with the best ingredients is part of our personal pride when making food for people.” Moreover, both Varley and Lepke routinely speak about the love and passion they put into their cooking, which might come off like a hoary cliché in some circles, but at Righteous translates to a level of detail in the preparation and presentation of food usually reserved for more sophisticated trattorias.

Accessibility is equally crucial to the Righteous concept. Their price point means even those with modest incomes can afford it, allowing Grand Haven’s everyman to partake in the same quality cuisines as those with ampler means. This egalitarian attitude translates behind the counter as well, where every employee, from cooks to bussers to dishwashers, split the tips. Perhaps the most important ingredient in their success, however, is authenticity. Even those recipes with a Texas twist must be rooted in real Mexican heritage. “We’re looking for what locals would make for their grandparents,” proclaims Varley. “We want the original recipes that somehow lose their voice when they come to America.” Fortunately, Varley’s voice has come through loud and clear, and it’s music to his customer’s ears.

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Mark Heidelberger

Mark Heidelberger has been writing professionally for 12 years, with over 1,200 articles published across a variety of respected print and online platforms.