Outside temperatures had flared over ninety, but everyone inside Tmaz Taqueria knew to ask for the beef stew. Steaming bowls piled high with beef, broth, and circlets of sliced corn-on-the-cob continued to sail out of the kitchen.
But how did they know? There was no sign of that particular item on the overhead menu. Owner Cesar Hervert seemed perplexed by the question. “It’s a special,” he said, with an offhand shrug and laugh, as if “special” were obviously synonymous with “just ask.” (We found it later on the “soup” section of Tmaz’s website–“potato, onion, carrots, chayote, corn on the cob, small ribs” in sizes small, $2.99; medium, $6; and large, $9.50. The online menu also lists menudo and pozole–though it doesn’t clarify just when each might be available.)
Locals have learned to take Tmaz as it comes. No one would ever accuse Cesar of valuing form over function, and Tmaz, having added functions, is gradually feeling its way into a new form. At the moment it’s not pretty, but the newly rearranged three-storefront business is open and functioning.
Cesar and his wife, Ana Trinidad, bought the adjoining Goodies Produce a few years ago and continued to operate it for a while as a freestanding business. But “back then you could buy a crate of tomatoes for $2 and sell them for $20,” Cesar says. “Now you buy them for $18 and sell them for $20. I can’t compete with Kroger and a lot of other places”–Golam Produce down the block among them. With a fourth child on the way, they decided they were better cooks than produce-mongers and began knocking out walls to expand their restaurant and bakery into the Goodies space. The ultimate plan is to reduce the produce store to a small Latino market and give the banking and money-transfer business a corner office of its own.
In addition to plenty of seating, there’s now more room to display a couple of their important sidelines. Pan dulce is baked on-site, and Cesar enthusiastically explains the origin of these European-like sweet yeast breads. “Porfirio Diaz–in the nineteenth century he brought over a lot of French elites,” with the idea of remaking Mexico in Europe’s image. French bakers came over to replicate their fine wheat-flour pastries, which eventually became a Mexican specialty in their own right. He names them individually: “novias; conchas–they’re shaped like shells; orejas or ‘ears’–some people call them palmiers. You probably know empanadas filled with meat–these are filled with pineapple or guava; and these are churros.”
He installed a glass counter and freezer for ice cream and dessert bars, both made in Kalamazoo by Paleteria la Michoacana, in usual and unusual flavors, like rompope (eggnog-ish) and chamoy (made from pickled fruit), as well as “chicle” for the kids–sounds so much better in Spanish than “bubblegum,” but it’s still the same poisonous-looking blue.
Cesar, originally from Veracruz, met Ana when he was teaching middle school in her hometown of Temascalcingo. They moved to Texas after he was invited there to teach English and Spanish, but “it wasn’t the place for me.” They chose Ann Arbor after a friend told them it was a good place to raise a family, but he says he soon realized his English wasn’t good enough to continue his teaching career (it’s mainly excellent, though it’s hard to distinguish the differences among v’s, b’s, and p’s, which gives his speech a lively pop). He eventually surrendered himself to the restaurant world, where jobs were easier to come by. When he and Ana opened their own place, they named it after the town where they’d met–even to its citizens, Temascalcingo is a mouthful, so it goes by T’maz.
“I wouldn’t be here if I was not married to you,” Cesar says fondly to Ana, who has just arrived to take an evening shift. “I have ideas, but not, maybe, energy? She is like, ‘Why not? Let’s do it.'”
“We’re a team,” she says firmly, waving away Cesar’s compliment. “Anyway, people are responding very well. Now they’re bringing family.” As if on cue, a clutch of her relatives arrive to show off week-old Miguel, and Ana and Cesar’s ten-year-old daughter, Julie, skips through, dropping a kiss on each parents’ cheek.
Cesar’s future plans include a salsa bar, as soon as he’s finished corralling all the groceries into one place. If he has any plans to take down the old Goodies Produce sign or reduce the number of entrances (three) that feed into the same newly enlarged room, he didn’t mention them.
Tmaz Taqueria, 3182 Packard, 477-6089. Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. tmaztaqueria.com