Mexican cuisine was the first to be named a heritage cuisine, in 2010, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Some of that amazing food has made its way north, and—in honor of Cinco de Mayo—we highlighted a few of the local restaurants serving up your favorite tacos, burritos, and more.
OSORIO TACOS Y SALSAS (WILLIAMSBURG)
Miguel Osorio is a country boy from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca. His wife, Karla, hails from northern Baja. Together they have fused the traditions, ingredients, and methods of their shared histories to flavorful effect. The north is all about olives, vineyards, and seafood from the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. The south is an Eden of organic fruits and vegetables, plus cultivated plants that make the region the foundation for Mexican dishes: herbs, greens, and chilies; small, tender-skinned avocados with flavorful leaves; and 25 varieties of beans. (Miguel says beans thrive in the Oaxacan soil.)
The Oaxacan Hotline
So what is the Osorio difference? Insist upon the best, freshest, and most authentic ingredients, and keep to tradition. Just like Miguel learned about food from working on his mother’s and grandmother’s farms, today his nephew Salvador, Osorio’s chef, keeps in touch with his own mother and grandmother back in Oaxaca to verify recipes.
The Heat is On
Osorio’s No. 1 favorite is the Alambre, the meat lovers platter: steak, chicken, bacon, chorizo, and pork, plus fresh vegetables, all grilled to impart that warm, smoky finish which is another Oaxacan signature. This is a dish for the American palate—and big enough for two meals—but “elevated by any level of heat,” Miguel explains.
Speaking of heat, Miguel and Karla Osorio create a selection of salsas—up to a dozen varieties come summer—with just-picked flavor from a medley of defining ingredients, from the mild avocado-based Salsa Cremosa to the hot Salsa Primitiva, an old family recipe based on roasted peppers. A salsa bar allows the uninitiated to choose their favorites.
6037 US-31, Williamsburg | 231-938-9144 | osoriotacosysalsas.com
MI VALLARTA (GAYLORD)
Gaylord’s MI Vallarta has expanded upon the idea of street food, taking a full complement of authentic Mexican foods—mostly from scratch—but processing them through a kitchen which is paced to move orders, from the 2-minute fish taco to the 4-minute wet burrito. MI Vallarta combines Americans’ love of true Mexican food with our fondness for anything drive-through. Talk about a cultural exchange!
The Real Deal, Real Fast
Chef Emmanuel Poggi explains that, in Mexico, tacos are enjoyed on the street, while, say, a burrito is eaten at home. But at MI Vallarta, it’s all a moveable feast. Owner Cesar Umbral hails from Jalisco, in west central Mexico, and regional menu items include Sopes (pronounced soh-pez), a thick corn cake used as a base for meat, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce; and Torta, a Mexican sandwich—called a Mexican Panini on the menu—a bread roll filled with beans, meat, and vegetables including avocados, peppers, tomatoes and onions. (Jalisco is iconic Mexico: mariachis, wide brimmed sombreros, tequila, the Mexican hat dance, and wide-skirted beribboned dresses all originated there.)
MI Vallarta’s biggest sellers are the Sopes and the Wet California Burrito, the Americanized meat and French fry variation said to have originated from the demands of hungover surfers in San Diego.
But fast service doesn’t mean that one can’t linger inside MI Vallarta’s large, colorful dining room. This is a great location to enjoy a family dinner with no need to worry about impatient youngsters. (Kids will find plenty to like: tacos to chicken tenders, quesadillas to mac and cheese.)
More to Love
Cesar Umbral has expanded downtown, opening El Patron Grill in the previous home of the Sugar Bowl, Gaylord’s iconic restaurant which closed, after 100 years, due to COVID. El Patron’s vast menu is fresh, made from scratch, and loyal to traditional recipes. (Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, El Patron has a drive-through window.)
1006 W Main Street, Gaylord | (989) 448 2381 | mivallartarestaurant.com
THE CANTINA (CHARLEVOIX)
The Cantina, a Mexican café and tequila bar tucked into a repurposed alley in Charlevoix, would fit comfortably in any south-of-the-border village. It’s bright and welcoming, with comfortable indoor spaces and a walled outdoor patio—with a fire pit—underneath garlands of sparkling lights. The place is wildly popular. “We have lines down the alley all summer,” explains Angie Sutherland, front-of-house manager.
The Cantina has a farm-to-table mindset, with a deep commitment to sourcing northern Michigan produce and products, but is also inspired by the traditions and spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Recipes go back generations, but change to reflect the cycles of seasonal ingredients. In other words, this is fresh food, simply made, both sustainable and satisfying.
Of the street-style tacos, the favorite is the Original Baja Fish taco: Corona-battered Pacific cod with lime crema. Other choices include Carnitas (slow-cooked, Mexican-style pulled pork) and Barbacoa (overnight braised beef). Chicken and ground beef tacos complete the choices. Vegetarians will enjoy the Crispy Potato taco, made from Yukon Gold potatoes, pickled fennel, avocado crema, and charred grapefruit relish. Fresh salsas, queso, and guacamole with chips are big sellers, and the Five Cheese Quesadilla and Chicken Nachos round out the menu.
The Cantina serves a variety of margaritas with house-made mix, but for the aficionado, or anyone hoping to become one, a veritable history of tequila is displayed in the bottles running along the back bar. Some brands might be right for shooters with salt and lime, but others, artisan and small-batch, should be served neat and sipped the way one would enjoy a fine whiskey or scotch. Try a flight to savor the differences of this highly regarded, and tightly regulated, spirit. “We have flights for every palette and every price range,” Sutherland says.
101 Van Pelt Place, Charlevoix | 231-437-3612 | cantinacharlevoix.com
Cinco de Mayo, May 5, is not the Mexican version of our Fourth of July; in fact, it’s not even a federal holiday. For the skinny, read on…
In 1861, Mexico, bankrupted by the Mexican-American war, declared a temporary suspension of debt payments to European creditors, including France. Napoleon III saw this as an opportunity to install a French puppet government and to support the U.S. Confederacy by trading guns for cotton. In 1862, expecting an easy victory, 6,000 elite French forces—apparently packing hubris along with their gear—engaged 2,000 Mexican soldiers and irregulars at the Battle of Puebla, 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. By evening, Napoleon’s guys were soundly defeated. (Today we call that imperial overreach.)
The first Cinco de Mayo celebration was actually not in Mexico but in Los Angeles, in 1863, among the Mexicans who had moved to California during the Gold Rush. Today, celebrations in Mexico are regional, featuring military remembrances with battle reenactments. Here in the States, some mark the day with a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage while others lean toward Mexican food and drink. Lots of drink. Some say Americans’ embrace of Cinco de Mayo is the result of savvy marketing by Mexican beer makers. Sounds about right: An Alcohol.org poll names Cinco de Mayo “the fifth booziest” holiday in the U.S.