A snow-packed sidewalk relents to the sensory rodeo inside Mama Lu’s in downtown Traverse City. A bright green pyramid of limes sacrifices its layers to a busy citrus press squeezing out the sweet acid base for margaritas and guacamole. Servers elbow by with bright platters of charred corn wheels slathered in lime aioli and cotija cheese and bowls of snapping hot pork rinds with pineapple habanero sauce.

These spicy street snacks are good for soaking up the first few sips of mezcal while hungry patrons packing the tightly spaced two-tops await the main event: tacos. Synthesizing classic French culinary training with summers spent in his grandmother’s Las Cruces kitchen, Chef John Larson and his team execute taco art at its Platonic pinnacle. A taco pescado of crispy fried lake perch is layered with crunchy orange jicama slaw, fresh mint, hot sauce and cooling avocado crema while the taco vegetal stages nutty roasted cauliflower over white bean hummus with a fiery floral dash of chile hibiscus sauce and a bright purple beet chip.

Executive Chef/Owner John Larson

John graduated from New York’s French Culinary Institute and cooked in border towns like Tucson and San Diego between visits to his Mexican grandmother in Las Cruces. John and his wife, Adrienne, a Suttons Bay native, saw an opportunity for an innovative “modern day taco shop,” and launched Mama Lu’s in 2016. We sit down to talk taco fundamentals and upping our guacamole game.

Help us make the leap from French technique to tacos?

The tortilla stands in for the white plate and we follow a creative stream of consciousness approach to envision how the fatty component, crunchy component, acid, salt and heat come together using Mexican ingredients. Basically, it’s a refined idea reimagined as poor man’s street food.

Ok, now build us a Mama Lu’s taco.

It has to start with a fresh tortilla. We lay down a sauce on the shell, something with a fatty base like crema or aioli. Then we’ll add meat like braised short rib or pork belly, a crispy garnish like a fried carrot or beet chip, some sort of pickle for acid and finish with a fresh herb.

Taco blueprint, check. Let’s move on to next-level guacamole.

Fresh lime juice is essential. You want avocados that are firm but with a slight suppleness so they can be cubed and still hold their texture. We use white onion because it’s sweeter and fresh jalapeño, both in a brunoise dice. Add salt to taste and finish with a citrusy, fruit-forward olive oil.

More Taco Stops in Northern Michigan

From fried chicken and kimchi creations to straight up street-style carnitas, feed your need in the North’s A-list taquerias.


2749 W. Silver Lake Rd., Traverse City | 231.421.8388


1333 Yellow Dr., Traverse City | 231.943.1453


Find the food truck | 231.330.9408


309 Petoskey St., Petoskey | 231.348.3299

Traverse food and drinks editor Tim Tebeau writes from Petoskey. dining@traversemagazine.com. Dave Weidner is a freelance photographer based in Traverse City. dweidnerphoto@gmail.com.

Northern Michigan Food & Drink

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner