Trying new things
by Lee Lawrence
From the January, 2019 issue
When we were kids in the 1960s and 70s, Mom occasionally made dinner by opening cans of La Choy Chinese vegetables and a bag of crispy dried chow mein noodles. Following recipes in her slim, garishly photographed "international" cookbook, she'd make the mid-century, midwestern Asian dishes popular then--subgum or chop suey or egg foo young. We loved those metallic-tasting snow peas and sprouts and straw mushrooms in their brown gravy, but we were not a big rice-eating family, maybe because in those days Mom only made Minute Rice, a product as much akin to the real grain as an American slice is to cheese. While Mom and Dad piled their Minute Rice with subgum, she scooped our portions into side bowls, sprinkled them with sugar and cinnamon, and poured in a lake of milk. With the milky rice in our bowls and chop suey on our plates, we were essentially downing our dessert with our dinner, and we thought it all delicious.
Remembering those meals now, of course, makes us shake our heads--though I still wouldn't sneeze at a plate of egg foo young. Nor can I refuse a good horchata, the Mexican beverage made by whirring raw rice with water, sugar, and cinnamon. On our first visit to La Taqueria, the horchata, freshly made, still frothy, a bit warm from the kitchen air, brought back wistfully evocative memories of those childhood dinners. Rest assured, though, that the sleek, streamlined restaurant, which opened last summer on Liberty near Main, is squarely of this century.
Authentic taquerias are everywhere now, and soft tacos--versus the American hard-shell boxed product also popular in my childhood--pop up on menus in many types of restaurants. Rather than compete with them, the Messmore family, owners and operators of La Taqueria, opted to globalize the concept, modernizing typical varieties and adding Asian and American influences to others.
Made with corn tortillas from Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory, La Taqueria's tacos are large, fragile creations, primarily because
most are seriously overstuffed--a plus or minus depending on your preference for quantity over balance. I watched some folks eat the fillings with their forks, tearing off bits of tortilla as they progressed downwards. After our first visit, we tried asking for double tortillas to increase the tensile strength, but that strategy worked only sometimes. Though each taco is four or five dollars, their hefty size means two will likely satisfy a normal appetite.
The all-day menu includes one daily special; on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. there's also a column of brunch tacos, the savories encased in corn tortillas, the sweet ones in thin, soft waffle shells. Highlights for us included a very lime-y guacamole with corn chips--the chips are also from the Tortilla Factory--and an even more addictive elote-style corn dip, with sliced kernels simmered in a creamy sauce dusted with powdered chiles and cheese. The camaron taco paired nicely seasoned shrimp with a corn and avocado salsa, and their barbacoa take featured tender shredded beef pulled from long-braised short ribs--though a lighter hand with the meat wouldn't have hurt. Brunch offered my favorite taco, the salchicha, eggs scrambled with chorizo hash and cheese.
A Thursday special nopal taco--grilled cactus pads and onions laced with serrano chilies and corn--set my mouth afire, but my husband loved it. Mellower vegetarian options include the immense hongo, funky grilled portabellas and corn entombed in a landslide of guacamole; the frijole, a mash of black beans, sweet potatoes, and poblanos; and the unusually slim but sprightly brunch aguacate of avocado, arugula, and pickled onions.
The tacos we found less successful often were, like the brunch migas--eggs scrambled with tortilla chips in a tomatillo salsa--so under-seasoned as to be almost flavorless. Ditto the pork al pastor, which was also dry and overloaded with meat. We were underwhelmed by the fish taco (pescado), which used grilled mahi, and the three chicken options we tried--Thai, frito, and brunch's pollo y waffle, which transformed the southern favorite into a taco by wrapping boneless pieces of fried breast and bacon, drizzled with maple syrup, in a thin, soft waffle shell. There were great ideas here, but all lacked the zest of a great mouthful--whether from too much under-seasoned protein or insufficient embellishment.
A taco needn't be authentic to be tasty; globalization is making authenticity as antiquated a concept as Mom's "international" cookbook. But it does need to get the essence right--a balance of moist, flavorful filling, earthy shell, and piquant garnish and sauce.
La Taqueria's versions miss that mark more often than they hit it, but those that do, like the camaron and the brunch salchicha, make a marvelous meal in the hand. And, accompanied by a glass of horchata, deliciously washed down with dessert.
106 E. Liberty, (734) 369-6922
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sat. 9 a.m.-midnight, Sun. 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Starters and sides $4-$8, tacos $4-$5
Vegetarian items noted on menu
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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