Food & Drink

Enjoy Traditional Latin American Street Food Under the Comfort of a Roof in Detroit

Published On 11/29/2016 Published On 11/29/2016

Metro Detroit is an enclave of diverse eats (if you don't know, now you know, homie), serving up some of the most delicious and finest of Latin American cuisine: its street food. Way beyond simply Mexican, our city is home to a bevy of South and Latin American delicacies, from the pupusas of El Salvador to the cachapas of Venezuela. And though we'll have a fleet of trucks thrown at us every now and then -- think Eastern Market After Dark or food truck rallies in near 'burbs like Ferndale and Royal Oak -- if you want those same delights without having to stand around in the cold eating greasy food out of a paper towel, you can simply find it at brick-and-mortar spots around town. Here’s an essential list of some of the best restaurants and dishes Detroit has to offer for lovers of Latin and South American cuisine.

El Asador

Springwells Village

The Italian-Mexican steakhouse on Springwells Street is beautiful inside and out. From the full mural on the building’s east-facing wall to the paintings of luchador masks inside, the restaurant offers an inviting backdrop for dinner in the city. When it comes to portability, we thought the fish taco entree did the job nicely, especially with the different preparations of mahi mahi presented in the three-taco assortment. The lobster quesadilla might not be something you’d find on any old thoroughfare, but even before entering, you know that El Asador isn’t just any old place. From the mole, finished with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, to the tortilla chips, these elevated dishes are made in-house with lots of experience and love.

Garrido's Bistro & Pastry

Garrido’s Bistro & Pastry

Grosse Pointe Woods

This Grosse Pointe Woods delight consistently offers some of the freshest, tastiest seafood in town. Co-owner and Chef Vanessa Gonzalez, always a kind and welcoming presence in the tiny, warmly-lit space, tells us that her shrimp and fish comes from the only supplier in Michigan allowed to offer live lobsters. While the bistro offers many different kinds of arepas -- a kind of South American sandwich served in a scratch-made corn bun -- they have cachapas as well. Cachapas, Venezuelan corn pancakes with batter made from fresh corn, milk, and eggs, can be had with large, perfectly-cooked shrimps. The delightful texture and light, mildly sweet creaminess of the cachaca make a perfect backdrop for shrimp sauteed with onions. Opt for the arepa called The Mermaid, containing nearly as many shrimp, for foil-wrapped, take out convenience.

Flickr/Kirk K

Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño

Mexicantown

El Salvador’s take on the sandwich, in a loose sense, anyway, the pupusa is presented as a flat sort of fritter. The thick corn casing, not unlike either tortillas or pita pockets, comes stuffed with a variety of fillings. Sampling the loroco flower pupusa -- with flower buds that are traditional in El Salvadoran cooking -- bring a decidedly (and expectant) floral note to the cheese (think the good Chanel, in layman's terms). Regardless, these pupusas, that come with coleslaw and salsa roja, were delicious. But what surprised and delighted most were the Salvadoran tamales, which are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. The savory richness of the meat filling permeates the masa, so there’s not a bland inch in them.

Taqueria El Rey

Mexicantown

This cash-only Mexicantown mainstay focuses, like its name implies, on tacos, which come fully loaded with mildly spiced meats, including an al pastor that we could not stop eating. Tacos here cost a mere $1.50 and come in a plentiful array of intriguing varieties beyond the typical al pastor and carne asada. You'll also find carnitas (these crispy fried pork tacos are an especially big hit) and chorizo; for the adventurous, there are tripe tacos, cabeza (steamed beef head), and lengua (beef tongue), all prepared to the T (... for taco).

Vicente's Cuban Cuisine

Vicente’s

Downtown

You’ll find every manner of Cuban street food presented elegantly on white china in a dining room that was meant for parties at Vicente's. In addition to the wide array of large plates -- Cuban classics rendered with finesse -- this Library Street powerhouse offers one of the largest collection of street-fare style items in the city. We tried its take on the tamale (huge, covered in tender pork, practically a dinner in itself) as well as the empanadas with a flaky pastry, rich meat seasoned with citrus and lots of spice. If you want to sample the city’s best Cuban, and we do mean sample, nothing works like gathering friends, ordering a few of the delicious tapas, and sharing them round the table with the showcase of paella. And any dinner that ends with shots of Cuban liqueur served in tiny chocolate cups ends right in our book. After dinner, you can hit up Vault of Midnight next door and nerd out on its huge assortment of comics, anime, and even a cute stuffed animal or two.

O.W.L.

Royal Oak

Newly open since the summer, this Royal Oak joint serves delicious Mexican food 24/6 (you're out of luck on Sundays when it closes at 10). The taco del dia here was a marvel: the fresh corn tortillas had an unbeatable texture. But, hence the name, what's inside is always changing. Housed in the former Onion Roll Deli building on Woodward, the mid-century modern take on a diner offers portable delights and cozy company up until the wee hours of the night. Owned by members of Detroit’s restauranting Bongiovanni family -- better known for Market North End in Birmingham -- the high concept diner’s tacos are great, but we also recommend street staples like the chilaquiles, punched up avocado toast, and hearty chicken sopas. While you can certainly leave with your portable delights, sticking around for a long, passionate talk with the chefs about the pros and cons of a griddle-toasted cinnamon roll (and that roll itself) make the choice a little harder than the usual dine in or take out quandary.

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Rebecca Golden lives in Detroit and is working on her second book, Welcome to Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @GoldenReb for subversive ideas about food, drink, cats, and the city.

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1. El Asador Steakhouse 1312 Springwells St, Detroit, MI 48209

El Asador proves that finding authentic Mexican food is as simple as heading to southwest Detroit. El Asador serves an array of approachable Mexican dishes, like crispy quesadillas overflowing with melted cheese and shredded chicken; three-cheese enchiladas dipped in house-made sauce; and soft shell tacos filled with fried or grilled mahi mahi. However, you'd be remiss not to order one of the speciality steaks, like the immaculately char-grilled filet mignon with three-chile butter sauce or the New York steak topped with homemade ranchero sauce. Don't forget to bring along a six-pack of your favorite cerveza, as El Asador is BYOB.

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2. Garrido's Bistro & Pastry 19605 Mack Ave, Grosse Pointe Woods, MI 48236

At Garrido’s the most popular thing to order are the Venezuelan arepas, but this simple little bistro serves more than just freshly-sourced, authentic Venezuelan cuisine. For breakfast you can get any number of crêpes, omelets, arepas (grilled or deep fried sandwiches made with thick corn flatbread), and perico (scrambled) eggs like The Albatross (scrambled with shrimp, green and red onion, and garlic). The arepas are each stuffed full with a host of interesting ingredients like the Brunette, filled with Venezuelan sautéed pulled beef with onion, red bell pepper, and tomato. For more authentic cuisine try a cachapa, fluffy corn cakes topped with cheese and other goodies like sautéed shrimp. For dinner, expect mostly Latin and Spanish dishes like paella and Italian pasta-based dishes.

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3. Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño 3149 Livernois Ave, Detroit, MI 48210 (Mexicantown)

Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño in Southwest is a one-stop-shop for your Salvadoran cuisine cravings. Here, you’ll nibble on pupusas, thick cornmeal tortillas filled with refried beans, chicken, pork, veggies, and cheese. With the consistency of a Greek pita, pupusas at this casual restaurant are served with a portion of curtido, a cabbage salad peppered with jalapeno and delivered to your table, which is decked out in a blue and white checkered plastic tablecloth.

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4. Taqueria El Rey 4730 Vernor Hwy, Detroit, MI 48209

Family-owned Mexican restaurant Taqueria El Rey prides itself on dishing out the best grilled chicken in Detroit. While this is a tall order, El Rey certainly holds its own in the poultry market with its menu of tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, all stuffed with chicken that’s freshly cooked on an outdoor grill. You can also select from shrimp, ribs, and ceviche menu options. Have a seat in a red pleather booth and stay awhile; you’ll be surrounded by locals who are all in on El Rey’s masterful grilled chicken secret.

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5. Vicente's Cuban Cuisine 1250 Library St, Detroit, MI 48226

Vicente’s Cuban Cuisine brings a spicy, colorful slice of Havana to Detroit. Home to both a dining area and salsa-dancing space, Vicente’s buzzes with energy every night. The menu consists of colorful paellas, empanadas, sandwiches, salads, meats, seafood, and sides, the highlights of which include seafood paella and pan con lechon, with marinated roasted pork leg, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and mayo on Cuban bread. Portions are generous, so be sure to ration out bites to leave room for dessert; the tres leches cake is heavenly, topped with sinfully sweet, fluffy vanilla meringue.

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6. O.W.L. 27302 Woodward Ave, Royal Oak, MI 48067 (Royal Oak)

Finally, a place where you can satisfy your 4AM avocado toast cravings. O.W.L. is open 24 hours a day, serving affordable Mexican-American comfort food like heaping portions of double layer nachos and spice-obsessed bowls of homemade chorizo chili, and the freshness of flavor is paramount no matter what time you go. The trendy outpost on Woodward Ave has a leg up on the nocturnal diners from olden days, sporting gleaming chrome bar stools and countertops, a hand-painted mural from designer Timothy Goodman, and the real kicker: nitro cold brew on tap to make sure you're awake and alert to take it all in.

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