Food & Drink

The OG of Detroit Mexican Is a Cheesy Mess and You'd Better Respect It

botanas
Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist

The botana is as essential to Detroit’s food identity as the coney dog, square pizza, or Better Made chips. But unlike those Motor City icons, it seemingly gets little to no recognition beyond the neighborhood where it originated.

The reason for this could have something to do with its name. In Spanish, botana simply translates to snack or appetizer shared with family and friends. It could be any sort of dish, from a simple caldo de camarón -- a shrimp broth -- to a filling bowl of chicharrones flavored with a squeeze of lime juice and dusting of chili. Some enjoy botanas in the same way Spaniards enjoy tapas, as an accompaniment to booze. With each new round, another botana comes out, each more filling than the previous one.

In that sense, the Detroit botana is really no different. It’s a hearty snack ideal for enjoying over beers. But in the Motor City, it takes on very specific characteristics. 

Botana is similar to a platter of nachos in that it starts with a base of warm tortilla chips topped with a variety of ingredients. Where it differs is in the combination of those toppings. After the corn chip foundation comes a refried bean and chorizo mix blended to a smooth, fatty texture, diced onions, sliced avocados, green peppers, tomatoes, rings of jalapeño, and a gooey forcefield of melted cheese. And this isn’t just any cheese. It’s gotta be a molten shell of Muenster.

There are some variations on botanas. Many restaurants add chopped green olives, another deeply idiosyncratic Michigan ingredient often piled on burgers . Others offer a chunky layer of ground beef or extra chorizo. But without those core ingredients of proteins, veggies, and Muenster, all you’ve got are run-of-the-mill nachos.

So how did this gooey amalgamation of flavors and textures come together? Why in Detroit? And can this even be called Mexican food or is it just an Americanized abomination disguised as Mexican?

armando's botana
The original botana at Armando's in Detroit's Mexicantown | Armando's Mexican Restaurant

The botana’s beginnings can be traced to 1975 inside the kitchen of Armando’s Restaurant on Vernor Highway. The proprietor, Armando Galan, is a Mexican-American originally from a small town outside of San Antonio, Texas.

At that time, Detroit was still struggling to recover from the 1967 race riots that erupted not far from Armando’s, killing 43 and forever redefining the city’s landscape. White Detroiters were exiting the city to the suburbs in droves and one of the few remaining draws luring them back inside city limits was baseball.

Armando’s was just one of many Mexican restaurants within the general vicinity of Tigers Stadium that catered to those fans, says Maria Elena Rodriguez, a Detroit native and author of Detroit’s Mexicantown. Since the 1980s the neighborhood, on the city’s southwest side, has been known as Mexicantown.

Mexicans have lived in Detroit for more than a century. As with many of the city's immigrant populations, factory work in the automotive industry was a draw, but so was agriculture, specifically the sugar beet industry. In the early 20th century farmers recruited thousands of Mexicans from South Texas to Michigan to work the fields.

That Lone Star state connection heavily influenced the earliest menus of Detroit’s first Mexican restaurants, says Rodriguez. At establishments like Mexican Village, one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Michigan, Detroiters were introduced to Tex-Mex menus heavy in cheesy enchiladas, chimichangas, and sizzling fajitas.

Like these early restaurateurs, Galan drew much of his inspiration for his menu from his Texan upbringing; hence the cheesy botana.

Galan’s botana became a staple at his flagship Vernor Highway location and at the three other other Armando’s outlets that soon followed.

Before long, the dish could be found at other restaurants throughout the region. Xochimilco Restaurant, a longtime dive eatery favored by the late-night crowd, even has a wall of fame featuring photos of babies whose mothers supposedly went into labor after eating one of the spot’s monstrous botanas.

By the 1980s, however, Mexican food in Detroit was evolving. Newer waves of Mexican immigrants  arrived, first from the state of Jalisco, then from rural areas of Puebla, Nayarit, and Oaxaca. Restaurants specializing in these regions proliferated.

“I used to have to go to Chicago for authentic Mexican food. Now we don't have to do that because we have all kinds of wonderful places.”

“The '90s were a real shot in the arm for Mexican food,” says Rodriguez. “I used to have to go to Chicago for authentic Mexican food. Now we don't have to do that because we have all kinds of wonderful places.”

Now Detroit boasts and abundant variety of regional Mexican specialties, like the Instagram-worthy mangonada, to moles from the Poblano/Italian eatery El Barzon, and decadent seafood dishes inspired by the menus of coastal state of Nayarit.
So with so many more options, where does that leave the botana? Some might sneer at the old-school restaurants like Armando’s, Los Galanes, Xochimilco, or Mexican Village as outdated and gringo-ized. But without these trailblazers, non-Mexican Detroiters may not have so eagerly supported today’s more authentic Mexican cuisine. 

For that reason, these eateries deserve respect and the botana deserves a spot as one of Detroit’s most beloved dishes. Like the community in which it was created, it's a testament to the convergence of cultures brought together in the area and tasked with making the most out of what they had. It's a gigantic, hearty plate of cheese, meat, and more, but it's also a dish that speaks to the history of the city itself and how its tastes evolved as it became a magnet for workers from throughout the world. 

Fortunately, eaters of our generation get this. Jose Franco, 30, whose family immigrated from San Ignacio, Jalisco to Detroit when he was 2-years-old, ties some of his earliest childhood food memories to the botana.

He tells me he never really thought of the botana as “authentic” Mexican food like the carnitas or chili rellenos his mother would prepare. But that wasn’t important. A carryout order of botana from Armando’s was a special treat.

“We knew were going to eat Armando’s when we saw that square box with the logo and the aluminum foil on the plate,” says Franco. And that meant they’d be enjoying botana.

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When Serena Maria Daniels isn't reporting on the history of Detroit Mexican food, she's eating tacos, ideally a taco campechano (or three) from her local taquero. When she's not eating, she presides as Chingona-in-Chief and founder of online food & culture outlet, Tostada Magazine. She is also a 2018 Feet In 2 Worlds/WDET food journalism fellow. Catch her on Twitter at @serenamaria36 or @tostadamagazine.