Authentic Latin food in Northern Michigan is here to stay. From tamales in Traverse City to burritos in Boyne City, read on as five restaurateurs share the backstory on their authentic Latin venues. Find the original Latin Love piece in the March 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Spanglish: Anna Serrano
1333 Yellow Drive, Traverse City 231.943.1453
My husband, Vincente, and I started by making tamales to sell at the farmers market. The tamales were really successful. And then we added salsa. Then we did some catering. So things just kind of grew. Selling the tamales did take a little education of the customer here sometimes, like we’d have to say, “Don’t eat the husk.” And that saying is what’s on the back of our T-shirts now.
Tamales have so many steps to making them. There’s the masa and roasting the meat and boiling and peeling the tomatillos for the salsa. Then the filling goes in the husk and it’s rolled and steamed and cooled and bagged. There’s like a million steps! We also roast and grind all of our spices.
We make authentic Latin, but we take a little healthier approach with our food. Like a traditional tamale would have a lot of lard, but we use a higher quality pork fat, so it’s healthier and there is more flavor to it.
The comments we get most of all is people are just grateful that they can have that kind of quality food in a take-out situation. And a lot of customers are happy to have so many vegetarian and vegan options.
Vincente and I met in 2000 when working the kitchen in a health spa in California, and that healthy food and local food approach still informs what we do. We cleaned up a lot of traditional recipes, eliminated any sort of preservatives or flavor enhancers. No mysteries. No MSG. Nothing swimming in weird melty yellow cheese. We have a deep-fryer, but we never use it. You feel better after eating our food, not worse—unless you eat too much of it!
We make everything we serve from scratch, so it’s nice if somebody has a food allergy and they need to check ingredients, we don’t go read a box label or something because we know exactly what goes into everything we serve. We also try to source locally as much as possible, so we work with Cherry Capital Foods a lot. We use Michigan beans, cabbage, eggs, milk, sour cream. Much of what we use is late summer crops, like tomatoes, so we use local farmers when that’s possible.
My favorite thing is a close tie between the pork taco and beans and rice. I think simple food is often the best food. When you can get really good beans and rice and make that a meal … I really like that. On top of beans we put feta and pico de gallo and serve it with tortillas.
Taqueria TC Latino: Robby Montes
2749 Silver Lake Road, Traverse City 231.421.8388
Our idea started because one of our partners, Adolfo Mendes, owns a Mexican grocery on South Airport, and people who went there were asking where they could get authentic Mexican food in a restaurant. So we became partners and started the restaurant, two couples, my husband, Mike Leko and me, and Adolfo and his wife, Sandra Rios.
We wanted to make like a little fusion for the plate. Mexico is a big country with a lot of different foods, different in every state, you know, and we wanted food ideas for all of Mexico, not just one region. Mike is American, but he lived in Mexico for 10 years, and he was really thinking people need to know of these many styles of food. Also, my best friend is a chef in Mexico and she comes here for four or five months to help design the menu and make our family recipes more … formal.
A lot of people think a Tex-Mex idea of having a taco with everything on it. But the principal idea for us is to show people the Mexican way, the authentic way to try Mexican food. I really love … the principal part of my job … I really love when people say, “Thanks for showing us, for giving to us this way, the flavor, the spices, thanks for sharing your culture.”
So, yes, we have foods from different parts of Mexico. For example, the mole from Oaxaca. Here, people don’t know that the best Mexican mole is from Oaxaca. The mole from Oaxaca is what the people gave to the king of the colony. It is very important, and having that in our restaurant is a way to share a little bit part of our culture.
Another very important mole is Emmolades mole. That is more from the center of Mexico. The difference is … how can I explain it … the base for the mole has around 50 different spices.
Another special plate that is very important is tamale Vera Cruzanos. This plate is from the south of Mexico, near Vera Cruz. It’s very different to find these kinds of tamales here because they are wrapped in banana leaves, not corn husk. This type of tamale is hard to find even in Mexico.
I grew up with all of these plates. The mole Emmoladas, the chiles rellenos, charros … that’s Mexican chili soup. I always cooked with my mom. Always, always, always. I really enjoy when people come to the restaurant and say, “Oh, it smells so good.” I think, yeah, it smells like Mom and Grandma teaching me to cook. It smells real. Nothing is canned. Everything is fresh. We are cooking all fresh. When people say, “Ahh, it smells so good.” I think, Yes, it smells like home. We are not selling food, really, we are selling happiness.
Second Location: Tacqueria TC Latino Dos: 2101 3 Mile Road N, Traverse City 231.943.2400
José’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant: Blanca Sommerfield
309 Petoskey Street, Petoskey 231.348.3299
The way we started is my husband and I went to a Latin food restaurant near here, and we had to wait 45 minutes to eat, and my husband said I should ask my mom to open a Mexican restaurant in Petoskey. So I asked her, but she said, “I’m too old.” So I asked my brother José. José had not worked in restaurants, but in Mexico, in our family experience, in order to survive we had to cook something and sell it, go to businesses and different things.
He moved here with his wife, and in three months we opened a restaurant. That was nine years ago. We have had a lot of our family work here. My mom, José’s wife, my sister, my nephew. Even though my mom said she was too old to own a restaurant, when she is here in the summer she works from seven in the morning till eight at night.
The recipes are my mom’s—that is the core of the menu.
What gives our food the magic is … a lot of Latin restaurants try to make their recipes change to the American taste. But when you do that you won’t get the true flavor of our food, so we don’t do that. Yesterday a guy from Texas came in. He said, “You just made my day. I never knew I could find food like yours in Northern Michigan.”
The only change we make is we don’t make it extremely hot. You got to be easy on them. We have freshness. We cut the avocado to order for guacamole, and people love to watch us do that. Everything is made to order, so we are chopping stuff because it is all fresh. People love to see good cooks and how the food is actually made.
Our spices are limited. You have to have garlic in anything you cook almost. Also salt and oregano. Those are the main ones. Also fresh cilantro. And we use a little onion for spice. Peppers too. We have a dried pepper, a skinny little one we use for the salsas, chile de árbol. Another is guajillo pepper. And the jalapeño. Bell peppers for fajitas. And it’s love. You gotta have love. And patience.
I went to Mexico last summer. My niece was graduating. She is the first doctor in our family, and I was the first to graduate from college in our family, so she really wanted me there. I visited for 10 days. I stayed at my mom’s house and she cooked for me every day. There is a cactus you cannot get in the United States. You boil it and it has some totally different tastes. My mom made a lot of it for me. It was wonderful eating my mom’s food.
Red Mesa Grill: Fred Moore
117 Water Street, Boyne City 231.582.0049
1544 US31, Traverse City 231.938.2773
When we came up with the idea of a Latin restaurant, it was back in the late 90s—we were founded in 1997. My wife and I used to go to a Mexican food place in Pontiac. It was fun and flavorful and affordable, but we chose Latin over Mexican because it allowed more freedom on the menu, allowed us to introduce a flavor experience not offered here back at that time. For research we went down to Mexico Town in Detroit and went to Chicago. Also, my business partner, Mary Palmer, is a grad of the Culinary Institute of America, and she had traveled extensively in the Caribbean and South America.
One research trip I remember, we went to Chicago. We didn’t have a lot of time and not a lot of money, but we went to a Peruvian restaurant and had something called armadillo eggs. It was an appetizer. We put that on our menu, and it is still on the menu today. It’s a simple dish—a lot of Latin foods are peasant foods, made by people who are stretching their dollars. So this has mashed yellow potatoes seasoned with lime, chicken, tossed with a sauce. And our refried beans are the best I’ve had anywhere. From the beginning we used a perforated hotel pan and smoked the beans, simmered them in spices and so forth. Nobody else does that.
One thing I love … We have our churrasco offerings, which are also peasant foods, meats—beef, lamb, chicken, sausages—that traditionally are roasted on a spit over an open fire on the range. We’d serve those with chimmichurris, which are condiments that are popular in Argentina and Brazil.
We wanted to execute as well on the drink as we did on the food. So we made our own homemade sour mix, and still do. We have a big tequila section, now over 180 tequilas in Boyne City.
When we opened, really we had zero money in the bank. There was no rich uncle in the background. But we had some experience and we were very, very hard workers. And we did not start off that busy—very quiet up here in the off-season back then. But we did have Boyne Mountain skiers nearby, and in summer we had people coming down Lake Charlevoix in their boats. And they’d pull on the door handle of Red Mesa Grill and couldn’t believe they were in Boyne City.
Looking ahead, we are doing a few things. We are really focused on the neighborhood feel, on our core group of customers. Also we have offerings for celiacs, vegetarians and vegans. Every fourth Thursday of the month we will have a prix fixe celiac menu. On the second Thursday we have a prix fixe vegetarian menu. We’ll also be doing cooking classes, demonstrations like how to make mango salsa—and you can take some home with you.
Georgina’s: Anthony Craig
236 E. Front Street, Traverse City 231.943.1555
When people say, “What a great concept, mix Asian and Latin,” I just say, well, that is just my life. I was born in a wonderful place in Nicaragua, a famous lobster port where the food was influenced by all the people coming to the port. They came from all over the world. My mom is a mix of Chinese and Nicaraguan, and my dad is Cuban. I grew up thinking all food is beautiful. My mom would wake up and decide if she was cooking Chinese today or Nicaraguan today or Cuban today. I also had an uncle who was 100 percent Chinese, and he owned a restaurant, and when I’d go in there, it would be all Chinese.
When I moved to the U.S. I was about 12 and was blessed to meet some young guys who I played soccer with. They were Italians, and their parents opened an Italian restaurant. So I got exposed to that too. I would see their grandmother rolling pasta by hand and cutting it with a knife. Cutting pasta with a knife! She sat there all day and that’s what she did. That was in Tampa, Florida.
I used to cook on Saturdays with my mom. She had an old Cuban cookbook, from like 1953 or something, and it had a recipe for classical Cuban bread. And one Saturday she was making it and said, “There’s too much salt in this recipe.” And I said, “How do you know that, you have never made it.” So she made half the recipe with the full salt and half with what she felt it needed, and she was right. My mom would always taste the food, change the recipe. She taught me that a recipe is just a basis for something, just a basis.
I use all influences. Like I know that Cubans don’t use butter. But I put butter in my tomato sauce, not to make it super rich and buttery, but just enough to make it silky. Or if it’s fish. The French use white wine. In the Caribbean it’s lemon. Well, I apply both wine and lemon.
Georgina is my cousin. She is five years older than me and, when I was growing up, she came to live with my family in the U.S. when there was war in Nicaragua, to be safe. She is a person who believed in me and taught me to love myself. She has not seen my new restaurant, but I told her I am saving all my money, and I will help bring her here to visit with her two children. I told her son he will come here this summer and wash dishes with me.
Just two years ago I put all my savings and everything I could on credit cards to open Georgina’s in that first little restaurant. Now I am in a place across from the State Theatre, because the people who own this building believed in me. Other people with many millions of dollars were interested in this space, and the building owners believed in me. I am a kid from a third-world country, man. From Central America. They gave me a chance.