Tough times inspire bold measures, and in some restaurants that can mean great changes.
Unfortunately, those we see most often these days — closings and bankruptcies — make us wince. In Ann Arbor alone (a community more insulated against bad times than most), three mainstays either closed or announced they would in August: Zanzibar, an eclectic pan-Asian restaurant; The Earle Uptown in the Bell Tower Hotel; and Trattoria Bella Ciao, a 20-year plus veteran of downtown.
So it’s heartening to find a restaurant bucking the economy in an innovative way. If early indications of crowds and positive customer reaction hold steady, this restaurant is likely to survive in good shape, thanks largely to a nicely refreshed menu and a few decorative touches.
It’s Cinco Lagos in Milford, formerly the upper-end Five Lakes Grill on Main Street, which owner and master chef Brian Polcyn closed suddenly in July and re-launched as a colorful neo-Mexican restaurant. The new venture is basically Five Lakes Grill in a serape, but with more energy and a friendlier, more casual atmosphere — and much lower prices.
Chairs and tables now sport bright yellow, green, red, and blue salamanders, sun signs, and other primitive symbols that we associate with Mexico. The previous murals of idyllic lake life have been replaced by stylized Mexican agricultural scenes.
“In July, I told the staff that we had to do something.” Polcyn says. “We were dying. We weren’t making enough money to keep Five Lakes Grill open. So, I came up with a plan. I closed July 18, reopened a few weeks later as Cinco Lagos.
“On the first day, we had 300 people and ran out of food,” Polcyn says. By the end of the first week they had served 2,200 people, compared to a top end of 700 in his very best week as Five Lakes Grill.
“It was unbelievable,” Polcyn says. “But to do it, I had to cut costs and prices down to the bone. A waiter at Five Lakes had to wait on a table of four to make $100. At this place, he probably has to wait on 45 people to do that. But at least they have a job.
“Like everyone, we had to roll with the times. Instead of lying down and blaming the economy, we’re here and in business.”
Cinco Lagos succeeds also because of what Polcyn has always delivered: high-quality, interesting food, and — this time — at incredibly reasonable prices. Main courses range from $10 to $15, and first courses are $6 to $9.
Four of us, ordering more than we could possibly eat with the mission of simply testing the food, had a bill that averaged $23 per person — that included dessert but not wine or margaritas.
Prices also seem to be driving another very visible change: a noticeably younger crowd and families with young children. “I really like that shift; it’s good and refreshing for the restaurant,” Polcyn says.
How good is the food? A couple of dishes are almost dazzling. And while others are less so, there was nothing that we found in the least inferior across two visits.
“I have some Mexican women in here in the morning,” Polcyn says. “They make the salsas, they make the moles, the chiles, everything. So by evening, when the customers arrive, everything is quick and ready. But it takes six hours to make the carnitas [pork]. The barbacoa [beef] cooks overnight. Then, in the morning, the women shred everything, the beef, the chicken, the pork.”
Much of the menu is standard fare, but notched up and with flair. The guacamole with chips is a blend of chunky and smooth avocado, nicely spiced and fresh, one of only five starters on the menu. The chips are cooked in-house, and the salsa is very nicely prepared. There are also two nacho items with standard trimmings. But the hits of the evening were the two other appetizers.
Do not miss the chicken flautas and the sopes, which are so distinct from other items on the menu that at our table they led to comparisons with Frontera Grill in Chicago, the brilliant temple of Mexican cuisine operated by noted chef and cookbook author Rick Bayless.
First, the flautas. More often than not, these cigarillo-sized rolled corn tortillas stuffed with meat sauce are deep-fried to the point where they are recognizable only by DNA analysis. The word is Spanish for flute, and, like the instrument, what comes out of them should be somewhat delicate, light, pleasing, and decidedly not dead.
The flautas at Cinco Lagos are among the best I have had in the metropolitan area, crisp outside and moist and spicy-succulent inside, four to a plate, served with some shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, and a zigzag drizzle of cream.
But it’s the sopes at Cinco Lagos that are really worth a discussion, because they are so uniquely good.
Basically, a sope is a light and delicate-tasting little bowl-shaped shell made of corn masa. The filling can be just about anything, but the most common are shredded beef and chicken, and cubes of pork cooked with peppers and onion and a reduced spicy, dense, and rich brown sauce. It’s topped with fresh chopped onion and cilantro and grated cheese — preferably goat or sheep.
Whatever the filling, the most important part is how the shell is made. I have been to several restaurants, some in Mexicantown, where the sope shell used is a commercial dough or a shell made for tartlets, such as mince pie — not a true sope shell.
“We make it all fresh every day,” Polcyn says. And it shows. The pastry is delicate, handmade, and from masa, and is just thick enough to hold back and suck in some of the gravies while remaining crisp and crunchy, yet light enough that it will break at the first pass of a fork.
At Cinco Lagos, the beef, chicken, and pork sopes are each totally different and divine; they stand apart and, on their own, are worth a visit. I could happily dine on nothing but Polcyn’s sopes and flautas anytime. The mouth-filling density of shredded beef, and the smoky shredded chicken with dashes of vegetable and rich sauce are exceptional.
There are only nine main dishes on the menu, including the first-rate light queso chiles poblanos rellenos, which are egg-battered and lightly fried and perched atop a tomato broth; roasted green-chile enchiladas; as well as the more classic cheese, chicken, and pork variety.
The only drawback we encountered was a somewhat inexperienced wait staff. Polcyn says that he lost several from Five Lakes Grill and has added many newcomers. But for what they may lack in experience, they make up in enthusiasm. Cinco Lagos is a keeper. And at these prices, it will be busy for a long time.
424 N. Main St., Milford; 248-684-7455. D Mon.-Thur. 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.