Cancun Mexican Grill
The Veras family's whirlwind takeover
by Billie Ochberg
The washed-out, leafless, biting cold days of winter in southeast Michigan--not even remotely tropical--can set us to combing the Internet for travel deals that take us south. Cancun! Take me away! In the meantime, Saline residents who crave a blast of color, fiesta tunes, and an affordable meal can check out the city's newest restaurant, the Cancun Mexican Grill.
The building, empty since 2009 when Signature Grill closed its doors, reopened in mid-December. It may look like the old place from the outside, but its windows, now painted to resemble Mexican adobes, hint that changes are afoot. Once inside, the grays of winter disappear. Brightly colored murals, by Lansing artist Domingo Gamboa adorn every available swath of wall space, depicting Mexican farmers, adobes, and Mayan temples, all beneath vast blue skies and vibrant orange and yellow sunshine. The tables, chairs, and booths are hand carved and hand painted by artisans of La Candona, a family-owned furniture-making business in Tonala, Mexico, not far from Guadalajara. Each piece is unique, with carvings of tropical birds, flowers, cacti, fish, or farmers, and giant sunbursts appear to rise off the high-backed booths, offering in relief what Michigan winters don't: brilliant color.
The first pair of co-managers, a husband-and-wife team, lasted about six weeks before realizing their commute from Adrian along with the restaurant's long hours left them little to no time to see their three young children. "I feel for them. My children are grown. I could never have done this work when mine were little," said Maria Vera, who now manages the restaurant with her husband, Lorenzo. (Lorenzo's brother, Carmelo Vera, owns another Cancun Mexican Grill in the Lansing area.) When we talked to Maria in late February, they had just completed a whirlwind, three-week transition that included relocating from Chicago without missing a beat at the restaurant.
"I worked at the Okemos restaurant back in 2007 for a few years," Maria explains, sitting in one of the brightly colored booths before
a weekday lunch rush. "I have my real estate license in Chicago and was hoping to go back to that, but Lorenzo wanted to help out his brother, so here we are," she smiles. Though she misses her mother back in Chicago, she says that the staff has made the transition easy. She manages the financial end of the restaurant while her husband pitches in everywhere else as needed, from cooking to bussing tables. If that sounds like the Veras are an experienced team, they are--they've been married for twenty-seven years.
The 3,100-square-foot restaurant seats up to 130 people. It has brand-new tile floors, a full bar, a downstairs banquet space that can seat another sixty-eight people, and several large-screen televisions throughout the restaurant, all tuned to a channel that plays lively Mexican mariachi and fiesta music.
The restaurant is one of a half-dozen Cancun Mexican Grills in southeast Michigan owned by Ismael Leon and his three business partners including Lorenzo Vera's brother. Leon, originally from Mexico, first worked in the Chicago area and is now based in Kentucky. "I wanted to get out of the big city and open a Mexican restaurant," Leon explains by phone. After visiting friends in Franklin, Kentucky, he found the market and community he wanted and there opened his first restaurant, Sol Azteca. Eventually, he felt ready to expand. Customers, family and friends suggested Michigan. In addition to Carmelo Vera's location, there's a second Cancun Mexican Grill in Okemos run by Leon's cousin, Felipe Bernal. Others are in Grand Ledge, St. Johns, Lansing, and now, Saline.
The scent of onions and chiles wafts through the restaurant as Maria Vera highlights a few of the restaurant's most popular items. "The molcajete is the most fun and so good," she says. A dinner specialty, it's served steaming hot out of the oven in a handmade stone bowl from Mexico filled with steak, chicken, shrimp, jalapenos, green peppers, and chorizo sausage. It's $14.99, and no, you can't keep the bowl!
The menu offers numerous Mexican combination dinners for just under $8, plenty of a la carte items, and an extremely popular mango margarita ($5-$9.99). Lunch specials range in price from $4.99 to $7.95. The children's menu offers small versions of Mexican classics like tacos and burritos as well as hot dogs, cheeseburgers and chicken tenders for less adventurous little ones. Carryout orders are welcome.
Cancun Mexican Grill, 405 E. Michigan, 429-2262.
Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-10:45, Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]