Exploring the Barrio

An insider’s tour of the real Mexicantown.


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Above: La Mexicana Supermercado

Mexicantown has long been considered one of Detroit’s treasured neighborhoods. Nestled within the boundaries of Southwest Detroit, its abundant diversity, walkability, and thriving business district has long been a magnet for newcomers. Some consider Mexicantown to be the stretch of Bagley and part of West Vernor Highway. However, this community of second- and third-generation Mexicans and recently arrived immigrants reaches as far west as Woodmere Cemetery and north to Michigan Avenue.

Most Latinos living in Southwest Detroit are from the state of Jalisco, specifically an area in Mexico known as Los Altos (“the Highlands”). Los Altos is composed of a string of villages that are the birthplace of three of Mexico’s most popular cultural exports: mariachi music, cowboys, and tequila. In fact, the mountainous region has the perfect weather conditions to grow blue agave, the necessary ingredient in tequila used to create the wondrous cocktail known as the margarita.

While the last big wave of Mexican immigrants came in the late 1990s, new immigrants continue to trickle in, and with them they bring their rich gastronomic traditions. Southwest Detroit is a place with an abundance of authentic food and cultural experiences.

I could fill many more pages telling you about the unique places to visit in Mexicantown. I love this neighborhood. The next time you’re in Southwest Detroit, take a slow drive down West Vernor, all the way toward Dearborn, and keep an eye out for the blankets emblazoned with the Virgen de Guadalupe hanging outside of storefronts, the boutiques selling colorful quinceañera dresses, and the dozens of eateries where you can experience a little taste of Mexico.

If you want rows of gated parking, chimichangas, and nachos, this tour might not be for you. But if you’re the adventurous type who wants to discover Mexicantown’s unique shops and culinary destinations, then read on for some insider secrets hidden from plain view.

Above: Mi Barrio

Tantalizing Tortillas

For much of my life, my grandmother would come and stay here in Michigan for long periods of time. We looked forward to her visits. Stuffed in her suitcases were treats like goat cheese, cajeta (Mexican caramel), and dried fruit candy made in her small village in Jalisco.

When she left, her suitcases went back just as full — bags loaded with jars of American face cream and tortillas from La Jalisciense.

My grandmother has passed, but the tortillas she loved are still being made here.

Every morning at 2650 Bagley St., the smell of freshly made tortillas billows through the air. At 4 a.m., the La Jalisciense tortilla factory starts cranking out the indigenous corn pancakes that date back to the time of the Aztecs. The tortilla shop first opened its doors in 1946, when Damaso Abundis and his son Raymond set out to cater to Detroit’s growing Mexican community and make fresh tortillas like the kind found in their homeland. Sixty-seven years later, second- and third-generation family members still run La Jalisciense. If you want to create your own Mexican fiesta, this is the place for great-tasting tortillas.

Traditional Tamales

My family has a long tradition of making tamales. At Christmastime, our kitchen became a tamale assembly line. Everyone took their place: My mom carefully seasoned the beef, my father kneaded the dough, and my sisters, nieces, and aunts spread the cornmeal into the corn husks and wrapped them like blankets.

Just a few doors down from La Jalisciense is the small grocery store at 2628 Bagley called Algo Especial. The store with the ceramic pigs lining its windows has been owned by Martha and Raul Hernandez since 1980. Algo Especial carries an array of Mexican products and a great selection of Mexican music. Walk past the pictures of mariachi musicians hanging on the walls and, at the back of the store, you’ll find their superb handmade tamales.

Tamales are an artistry all their own, and no one understands this better than Martha Hernandez.

A lot of businesses in Southwest Detroit make tamales, but hers are exceptional. Hernandez’s personal recipe leaves the corn fluffy and cooked to perfection. Also Especial offers a variety of flavors such as marinated pork, beef, cheese, and jalapeno, and specialty dessert flavors in strawberry and pineapple. My mom still makes her own tamales, but if she ever stopped, this is where she’d buy them.

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