Taqueria La Fiesta closed temporarily last winter after the cook, Memo Cardenas, got sidelined with a knee injury. His nephew, George Roman, a waiter at the time, says a temporary shutdown turned out to be a good thing. Business, once robust, was down, and the hiatus gave the owners a chance to figure out how to retool.
The first thing to change were the owners themselves: Roman ended up buying out his dad, Salvador Roman, as well as his uncle, Guillermo Aleman. Now, he’s co-owner of the restaurant with his mom, Michelle Roman (who still owns the original La Fiesta Mexicana on Cross Street in Ypsilanti with Salvador). With a revamped menu and his aunt Estella Cardenas, Memo’s wife, on board as the full-time cook, Taqueria La Fiesta reopened in early September, and Roman thinks he’s got everything in place to turn the business around. He hasn’t ruled out changing the name, either. “A taqueria in Mexico is the equivalent of a hot dog stand in Chicago,” he says. “It’s fast food.” He adds that most people probably didn’t know what a taqueria was, or what it sold. In this case, it’s affordable, well-made traditional Mexican fare like burritos, tacos, and quesadillas, plus traditional Mexican breakfasts.
But the menu carries a few surprises, too. Roman and Estella Cardenas have put a lot of effort into reproducing the regional flavors of Guadalajara, a city in Jalisco, the state his family originally comes from (“the land of tequila and mariachi,” Cardenas says). Roman himself is first-generation Mexican American. Although he admits some of the regional dishes are musky to the average American palate and an acquired taste, he is not deterred. “Unlike other restaurants in the area, we don’t try to mask the flavor by putting hot sauce all over it,” he says. “We want you to taste every ingredient.”
Working to expand the vegetarian selections brought the family back to an old family variation on a classic Mexican dish called huaraches, which translates, a little unappetizingly, into sandals or flip-flops. Taqueria La Fiesta’s version is made from breaded prickly pear cactus stuffed with cheese and served with corn tortillas and their homemade salsa and sour cream. (The name comes from the distinctive paddle shape of the cactus leaf.)
The taqueria is tiny–it seats maybe a couple of dozen people–but Roman says he’ll put his kitchen and his aunt’s culinary skills up against bigger area competition any day. “I’ve seen a lot of places try to do Mexican in the past two years,” he says, referring to ubiquitous chains like Qdoba and Chipotle that serve California-style Tex-Mex. He says those places serve good food, “but people really need to learn how to distinguish between a real Mexican restaurant and Taco Bell.” Here’s a hint: Roman says in most authentic Mexican dishes, white cheese is used, not yellow. “If you’re eating yellow cheese and think you’re eating Mexican, you’re in the wrong spot.”
Taqueria La Fiesta, 4060 Packard. 477-9240. Tues.-Sat. 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mon.