Duck carnitas tossed in guava chipotle sauce, braised short rib with mole barbecue sauce, and marinated grilled chicken with tomato confit and cucumber-yogurt sauce: These are all dishes that you might find on menus at most upscale restaurants around town. At M Cantina, these are also tacos.
The tacos are complete dishes on their own, says Junior Merino, chef at M Cantina in Dearborn, a halal restaurant serving gourmet Mexican food — mostly everything from scratch. Located on a stretch of Michigan Avenue, the cozy restaurant opened last year. The stylish and sleek space boasts gorgeous wooden tables and walls and accent pieces such as golden pineapples or bottles of spices strewn throughout. While the food is sophisticated and elegant, it’s still a casual place, with paper napkins set on the table. On the occasions we visited, the restaurant was full of a diverse group, from African-American families with young children to older white couples to groups of young Muslim women.
Before Merino moved to Dearborn a couple of years ago from New York, he’d never met a Muslim. As soon as he and his family attempted to share food with their neighbors, he found out they could not eat it because it was not halal. So, when M Cantina opened, Merino wanted to make sure it was halal — save for one pork dish. This opened the doors to a lot more of the community and allowed Merino to tap into his creative instincts.
There are no alcoholic beverages — in Merino’s previous life, he was the culinary ambassador of Mexico and an expert mixologist known as The Liquid Chef — but the drinks are prepared like craft cocktails so you can have a fresh mojito or margarita with dinner and not miss the tequila.
Merino is busting a lot of stereotypes with this restaurant. Indeed, the tacos are not the kind you’d find at your average taco truck or home-style Mexican restaurant where tacos typically feature a protein like pork topped with cilantro and onions. Or fried shells stuffed with ground beef.
Instead, Merino’s tacos are little masterpieces laid out on small corn tortillas, plated in threes on a wooden plank. Each element is intentional, each dish beautifully composed with perfectly drizzled sauces and strategically placed herbs and garnishes. In the duck taco, the guava chipotle sauce offers balance to the unctuous duck, with the sweet and spicy bringing the taco into perfect harmony. The temptation may be to douse the tacos with one of the 18 housemade salsas, which range in mildness and flavor from chickpea salsa to scorpion — a fiery blend of scorpion pepper, ghost pepper, habanero, Carolina Reaper, serrano, and Thai’s bird’s-eye chilies. But each taco is already a complete dish with its own complementary sauce. The salsas should be eaten with the tortilla or plantain chips, a tasty prelude to the main event.
The specials provide more insight into Merino’s culinary approach and reverence for traditional Mexican ingredients. A recent special featured chapulines, or crispy grasshoppers, which are a Mexican delicacy that come from Oaxaca. The taco comes with a layer of guacamole, topped with potatoes, crispy onions, and no fewer than 15 whole grasshoppers. Fried to a crisp and seasoned with a chili spice mixture, the grasshoppers bring a nutty texture to the tacos. This dish says a lot about Merino as a Mexican chef who loves his country and is celebrating that rich culture and history through his food. He’s staying true to his roots and not dumbing it down just to appeal to the masses.
While the tacos are front and center, Merino does other dishes on the menu with similar precision and style. The passion coconut ceviche arrives at the table with wisps of smoke billowing from the glass vessel it’s placed upon, making for a show-stopping presentation. With shrimp, scallops, mangoes, and jalapeños, the ceviche at first is almost too sweet, but when you dig into the bottom to mix everything together, the dish evens out.
For dessert, the cinco leches cake isn’t like your typical soaked tres leches cake. There’s still texture in the cake with a perfect crumb, a rendition that Merino’s wife, Heidi, who works alongside her husband and provides friendly and personable service, approves of.
Merino explains the food at M Cantina is not traditional but rather in the style of cocina de autor, which translates to “author’s cuisine.” Merino says this is the new style of the younger generation of chefs in Mexico City.
“The chefs are not cooking traditional grandma and mother’s dishes,” he says. “They’re [using] all Mexican ingredients with very unique combinations and very unique presentations.”
The restaurant aims to bring Mexican street food to a different level, Merino says, adding that any type of food whether it’s street food you eat with your hands or a dish that requires a fork and knife can be elegant and sophisticated.
At M Cantina, Merino is not only confronting these deep-seated stereotypes, he’s crushing them with sophistication and grace, one beautifully composed taco at a time.
“It really has to do with the techniques you use and the quality of ingredients and the freshness, how much care you put into your type of cuisine,” says Merino, who worked every position in the industry when he was living in New York. And he’s pricing it accordingly. Diners used to 3 tacos for $5 might have sticker shock — the grasshopper tacos are $18. He’s also served a taco with ingredients such as wagyu and foie gras for $60 a pop.
While M Cantina is dedicated to high-quality ingredients, ironically, it was the discovery of canned foods that helped pave the way for the restaurant. A native of the Puebla state, Merino grew up in a family of cooks renowned in their small town for their culinary skills. He was a picky eater as a kid and started cooking for himself at a young age. His family raised cows on their property so there was always fresh milk and cheese. Everything served at home was fresh. When he moved to New York at 15, Merino was shocked to discover that was not the case outside of his small town. What really got him were canned beans.
“My mom made beans fresh every day … and to see something simple like that in a can I was in shock. [I thought,] ‘How is that possible? They don’t go bad?’ ”
While Merino prides himself on carving a niche with fresh, from-scratch, and innovative Mexican food, there is one thing on the menu that is 100 percent traditional: the mole.
The mole starts in Mexico with his mom who creates 6 kilos of dried spices and peppers to bring with her when she travels to Michigan three to four times a year. The whole family comes to visit Merino and his family and have a hand in the daylong process, from meticulously toasting and grinding the spices, plantains, peppers, and cinnamon to stirring the fried chili paste for three hours until the oil floats to the top, a telltale sign that it’s done. Once chicken, or turkey, stock is added, it is now mole. The mole is a way to have his parents, who have been such an inspiration to him, with him at all times.
Merino pushes back against preconceived notions at this ambitious restaurant, such as that hard-shell tacos and chimichangas typify Mexican cuisine; that Mexican food is a monolith and the same no matter where you go in the country, which has seven regions; and that Mexican dishes should be cheap. That last one is especially pervasive. For many, they won’t bat an eye at a small bowl of pasta for $18, but balk at a taco at the same price.
At M Cantina, Merino is not only confronting these deep-seated stereotypes, he’s crushing them with sophistication and with grace, one beautifully composed taco at a time.
13214 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-399-9117. L & D Tues.-Sun.