Luis Hernandez, Andres Luna, and Nicolas Hernandez Quintana are childhood friends from an Otomi village in Mexico called Doxteje, northwest of Mexico City. Quintana is also technically the uncle of Hernandez, but the three are contemporaries. All now in their early thirties, they have a vast network of friends and relatives from back home who have settled in southeastern Michigan and in whose footsteps they followed, working in area restaurants–they specifically mention Angelo’s and the Quarter Bistro.
For years the three have thought of pooling their resources and starting their own place. It has finally come to pass in Mi Compadre, which opened in February in the former Ann Arbor Pizza & Subs (if that nondescript name doesn’t ring any bells, it’s in the Packard Plaza roughly across from Morgan & York).
“Do you like the color?” asks Hernandez, who mainly works the front of the house while the other two cook. They’ve painted the walls sunset orange and hung the usual serapes and sombreros on the walls. The booths have the comfortable, lived-in look of a beloved family diner–and the tables were salvaged from various restaurants. “Some of them, we heard, were in Chi Chi’s,” he laughs–the branch of the Tex-Mex restaurant chain that disappeared from South State in 2004.
“We wanted to cook the food from home that we miss,” says Luna. Food like Mom used to make is hard enough to find if you grew up in these parts, and they never felt at home in Ann Arbor’s restaurants. Asked where they dined out before they had their own place, they smilingly decline to name any area restaurants but give an enthusiastic thumbs up to a food truck in Detroit called Tacos El Primo.
Mi Compadre is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Hernandez points out a few of the main-dish specialties of the house: pollo en mole and tlayuda (a picture he has on his phone shows something like a tostada). “We buy fresh masa and press our own tortillas,” says Nicolas. “We make almost everything ourselves,” adds Luna. “The pastor for the tacos, things like that. Soon we’ll start making our own chorizo.”
In the morning, they offer Mexican-style huevos and salsa; American-style eggs and corned beef hash; and the slightly sweet, freshly baked and fried breads and donuts that are, says Hernandez, “the kind of breakfast we have at home in Doxteje.”
Mi Compadre, 2111D Packard, Mon.-Thurs. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. No website.
Across town, 8 Tortas opened around the same time. Ali Hijazi, who owns the next door Zamaan Cafe, is the owner: “Why not a Mexican restaurant?” he says. “It’s a very famous cuisine. And most of the spices we already had next door.” This one is halal Mexican, with no pork.
Hijazi called it 8 Tortas because “eight is my lucky number. No, I’m serious. It was my number when I was captain of my high school basketball team in Beirut. And I just like the number. If you turn it on its side, it’s infinity. But talk to my chef, Cesar.”
Cesar Ochoa, a twenty-eight-year-old native of Jalisco, was given the task of developing the eight tortas, or Mexican sub sandwiches, that were prescribed by Hijazi’s lucky number (though it seems he went overboard–the takeout menu describes ten). They sell tacos and burritos too, which Ochoa says at the moment are selling better than the tortas. In the food business awhile, he’s fluent in restaurant trade-speak: “This is a fast casual restaurant. It’s modern, fresh Mexican. I suppose you could say it’s like Qdoba or Chipotle, but here everything really is made fresh. They say their food is made fresh, but it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great. I like it, but trust me, it’s not made fresh in house.”
Describing further, he says, “This is not street-style, not Tex-Mex, but modern. It’s what young people are eating in Mexico these days. Not everything in Mexico is melted cheese and red sauce.” His sandwiches sometimes fuse Mexican flavors with Hawaiian and Asian flavors. “Mexicans are eating lighter, fresher. We take recipes from all over, and maybe add cilantro and jalapeno to make them our own.” Hence, his “Hawayan” torta: grilled chicken and pineapple with chipotle mayo on telera bread, $7.49.
Though the takeout menu doesn’t mention it, the dessert case is full of tres leches.
8 Tortas, 3584 Plymouth Rd. (Plymouth Green Shopping Center), 436-8182. Daily 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.