Many Ann Arborites say the best Mexican restaurant in town is one town east, at La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti. If you haven’t been there, don’t conjure up images of towering piles of the cheesiest, meatiest Tex-Mex. It would be more appropriate to imagine an anti-Taco Bell. A homey, slow-food approach to authentic Mexican food rules here, with meals including carrots, nuts, zucchini, pineapple, and other ingredients that you’re never going to see piled on nachos supreme.
Which is not to say that La Fiesta Mexicana doesn’t serve nachos. It does, and it offers other familiar-sounding south-of-the-border fare like burritos, quesadillas, and even tacos. But the tacos come topped with potatoes or house-made chorizo sausage, along with a sprinkling of fresh lettuce, onion, sour cream and/or cheese (chicken and beef are also available). There are extra chapters in the enchiladas book, too: La Fiesta Mexicana offers them a quartet of ways representing different regions of Mexico–topped with red and green sauces (one featuring tomatillos), or a mole sauce darker than chocolate, more bitter than sweet, and sharpened with ground peppers.
One of my favorite dishes at La Fiesta Mexicana is the chile relleno, centered around an imported poblano pepper bigger than my fist. It was dark green and wonderfully mild and soft in flavor and texture in this preparation. After being dipped in a thin egg batter, it was cooked just enough to sponge up a slightly sweet tomato sauce. Delicious in veggie- or meat-stuffed versions, the pepper has a cute little stem that sticks out as a signature curlicue to sophisticated creation.
Such care in conception and preparation shows up in plenty of other places. Tamales come tidily wrapped in corn husks and generous with flavorful fillings of meat, beans, and cheese. Included among the more unusual offerings are potosinas, an addictive sort of pan-fried Mexican dumpling with cheese and jalapenos. Even refried beans taste a cut above the norm (with maybe a splash of vinegar?).
Desserts don’t pander to gringo stereotypes, which is mostly a good thing. The tiny bits of corn in the flan may be surprising at first but add amusing texture to the molded custard. We guessed correctly on some of the ingredients in tamales dulces that give the coarse cornmeal batter a nutty texture and sweetness–but we won’t spoil your chance to have the same fun.
It may seem odd to speak last of the first food you’re likely to be offered upon entering the pastel pink- and green-trimmed storefront on Cross Street across from Eastern Michigan University. But the hint of ceremony that it comes with marks the La Fiesta Mexicana experience, and maybe even your memory of it. Shortly after you step into dark-paneled and burnt orange-tiled interior, owner Michelle Roman is likely to greet you and confirm (not ask, really) that you want guacamole. She may indicate, with a wave of her arm, that it’s being made for you as she speaks–in the back kitchen that you see only teasingly through a low horizontal slat of a window. And when it comes, it will not be the slimy yellow-green soup some Mexican restaurants ladle up sloppily. Rather, the small dark bowl of guacamole you get with your crispy corn chips will be light green and substantial–a fresh-tasting spread with tiny sparks of cilantro, emblematic of a gracious meal to come.
Roman was headed back to Mexico and her native Jalisco in September for the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Meanwhile, her restaurant in Ypsi will celebrate two decades in business on December 17.
It’s an accomplishment by any measure, but especially for a family business on a sometimes-rough block–Roman’s business partner, Guillermo Aleman, says a rowdy crowd hanging out in front of the biker bar a few doors down scared off some customers last year. But the bar closed in the spring and will be under new management when it reopens, and Aleman says that business has been coming back up a bit.
Since La Fiesta opened, several new Mexican restaurants have crowded into town–Los Amigos on Michigan Avenue even has a fully costumed strolling mariachi band. La Fiesta Mexicana may only be playing the cheesy Mexican Hat Dance on its background sound system, but no matter. All the action in this relaxed casa is in the kitchen–and on your plate.
La Fiesta Mexicana, 529 W. Cross, Ypsilanti 483-1666, Mon. 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m-10 p.m. Closed Sun., Appetizers $5.95-$6.50, entrees $6.50-$13.50. Lunch specials and children’s menu available. Wheelchair friendly.