If you’re looking for high-energy fun the first weekend in May, make a beeline to Mexicantown, in southwest Detroit.
Cinco de Mayo falls on a Monday, but Mexicantown will celebrate the holiday with fervor starting Friday and running through Monday.
The Mexican holiday occupies an unusual place in the American pantheon: We’ve adopted the celebration with enthusiasm, without much idea of what we’re celebrating. So here’s a quick introduction: Cinco de Mayo simply means May 5th in Spanish. The day doesn’t celebrate Mexican independence from Spain (that’s Sept. 16), but rather the day in 1862 when Mexican troops defeated French colonizers in the Battle of Puebla. The victory was especially meaningful to a country long weary of imperialist invasion.
It’s been an annual fiesta grande ever since. And no Mexican celebration would be complete without plenty of tasty food, from tacos to tamales, mole and enchiladas. The party will be going on all weekend, so when you need to refuel, sample one of the neighborhood’s numerous taco joints or drop into any of these festive eateries.
1. Mexican Village Restaurant
// Mexicantown stretches across both sides of the Fisher, and the eastern side tends to be more tranquil. Mexican Village offers an escape from the festivities on the west side, with easy parking across the street. The restaurant, though large, is nonetheless low key and full of cozy red booths, making it a respite inside as well as out. The food is more of the Tex-Mex variety — heavy on the fajitas, burritos, and enchiladas — but it’s fresh and fast. You can even brush up on history while munching the chips — Mexican Village’s walls are painted with murals depicting Mexico’s evolution. 2600 Bagley; 313-237-0333, www.mexicanvillagefood.com
2. Evie’s Tamales
// Evie’s is heaven for tamale lovers. The small restaurant serves up several varieties — pork, chicken, and spicy chicken among them — and offers them by the bagful for those for whom one meal just isn’t enough. The rest of Evie’s menu is pretty standard fare, but that’s OK because a truly good tamale is hard to find. For dessert, the friendly staff will bring a tray full of baked treats to pick from. 3454 Bagley; 313-843-5056.
3. Café con Leche
// Need a pickup? Try a latte at this sunny café in the new Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado, Mexicantown’s gleaming glass jewel on the east side. The coffee is excellent, the service —provided by owner Jordi Carbonell — is friendly, and a visit to the cafÃ© means a chance to browse the mercado’s shops, stocked with authentic Mexican folk art. 2826 Bagley; 248-736-1196.
4. Los Galanes
// This spacious restaurant right by I-75 offers an extensive menu, including a variety of fish and seafood dishes such as whole red snapper and ceviche. Or try a traditional Mexican breakfast dish like eggs with chorizo or nopalitos (cactus). The atmosphere is festive, which can mean loud, and the service can be unpredictable — so if you’re feeling impatient, you might want to go elsewhere. But the margaritas by the liter and the fresh guacamole can make a little extra wait time palatable. 3362 Bagley; 313-554-4444.
5. El Zocalo
// This restaurant, next to Los Galanes, takes its name from the Spanish word for city square. The building is about 100 years old, and El Zocalo’s owners are fond of conjuring up both its history and that of their country — they’ve used Aztec themes for their décor, including a giant statue in front named Tula. The restaurant boasts a range of traditional dishes, such as beef tripe soup and stuffed chilies. 3400 Bagley; 313-841-3700, elzocalodetroit.com.
// This friendly, comfortable eatery is a perennial favorite among Mexicantown visitors for its large portions, cheap drinks, and late hours. Super nachos with beef and veggies, drenched in cheese and jalapeños, may not be the most authentic Mexican dish, but they’re pretty tasty after a long day of celebrating. Its popularity could mean a wait during the holiday. 3409 Bagley; 313-843-0179.
7. Mexicantown Bakery
// When you’re ready for dessert, Mexicantown Bakery will satisfy your sweet tooth. This cheery shop offers a wall full of traditional Mexican baked goods. Grab a cafeteria tray and pile it up with cookies and pastries, or try one of the cakes behind the glass at the checkout. The bakery also offers plenty of non-perishables and, even better on a warm day, a glass case along the back wall stocked with cold beverages, including fruity Jarrito sodas, a Mexican favorite. 4300 W. Vernor; 313-554-0001, mexicantown.com/bakery_main.htm.
8. El Rancho
// El Rancho staked its spot in Mexicantown 25 years ago, and once you pass its colorfully painted exterior, you’ll find a relaxed atmosphere and a lengthy and varied menu. In addition to the usual fajitas, burritos, and enchiladas, El Rancho offers numerous traditional dishes such as pork with green chili sauce; shrimp with poblano sauce; and beef tongue with egg and ranchera sauce. Wash it all down with the specialty house sangria. 5900 W. Vernor; 313-843-2151, elranchomexrest.net.
9. Las Brisas
// Anyone who’s visited Mexico’s interior has probably had a chance to sample pozole, a delicious pork and hominy soup. It’s not clear why it’s so hard to find the hearty dish here, but thankfully Las Brisas is here to help. Savor a steaming bowl of pozole at this eatery, or another hard-to-find dish, birria (steamed lamb or goat with mole sauce), and bounce in your seat to live mariachi music. 8445 W. Vernor; 313-842-8252.
10. Mexican Town Restaurant
// Mexican Town generally doesn’t try to push the envelope when it comes to satisfying their visitors’ palates, but you’ll find some unique dishes, such as mushrooms with Mexican sausage, sauce, and melted cheese; and calamari and octopus salad. If that’s too adventurous for you, Mexican Town serves up plenty of Tex-Mex fare. The grandiose brick exterior and numerous flags make it hard to miss as you’re winding your way along the main drag. 3457 Bagley; 313-841-5811, mexicantownrestaurant.com.
11. El Comal
// Tired of fajitas? Try something off the beaten camino at El Comal, where Central American food is what’s favored. Enjoy Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Colombian dishes like golden hen soup and pupusas (cornmeal cakes filled with beans, pork, or cheese) served with fried plantains. The handmade tortillas are cooked fresh. El Comal expanded a couple of years ago to include a performance space and more tables, so expect entertainment with your edibles. 3456 W. Vernor, 313-841-7753.
// Margaritas aren’t the only Latin cocktail worth savoring: Armando’s features Cuban mojitos, perfect for accompanying its special Baja seafood tacos. There’s plenty of room for smokers at Armando’s, so this might not be the best stop for those who need fresh air. Cinco de Mayo revelers can expect a DJ spinning Latin tunes. 4242 W. Vernor; 313-554-0666, mexicantown.com/armandos_main.htm.
13. Dona Lola
// Ecuadoran, Dominican, and Puerto Rican dishes are the specialty at Dona Lola. Sample mofongo (plantains with garlic and pork), red snapper in garlic sauce, or Dona Lola’s special seafood rice. The lack of a liquor license makes it a bit more family friendly. 1312 Springwells; 313-843-4129.
// The massive construction project by the Ambassador Bridge has shut down parts of I-75 and other freeways. A simple way to Mexicantown is the Vernor Highway exit off eastbound 1-96, which can be reached via east- and westbound 1-94. Turn right onto Vernor to head to Mexicantown’s heart, left to get to the Mercado and other shops and restaurants. For a full list of alternative routes, check out wwj.com/pages/1665117.php.