A Latin American cuisine journey through Lansing, from Huaraches to Pollo Saltado
For Hispanic Heritage Month, WKAR is taking a closer look at the vibrant cuisine of Latin America.
WKAR’s Michelle Jokisch Polo takes us on this food tour across Lansing.
Latin American cuisine represents many cultures and perspectives. From the southernmost part of North America in Mexico to the mountainous tips of South America in Argentina — food in these places is as diverse as their changing climates and terrain.
To learn more about the ways this unique diversity is represented in Mid-Michigan, I visited a few Latin American restaurants in Lansing.
La Fajita (4405 S Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd)
In Lansing’s southside, along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is La Fajita. The food truck is parked in the MLK Plaza lot next to the Liquor King.
La Fajita’s owner Eva Gonzalez is making a Mexican huarache. She said the dish is one of their most ordered items.
“We like to make our huaraches fresh. This will be a steak huarache," Eva Gonzalez said.
“So, she is making a traditional 'huarache' which is made out of the corn masa — today she’s making the one made out of steak," explained Gonzalez' daughter, Cindy Espinosa-Gonzalez.
Huaraches are a dish from the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City, where their family is from.
“Now, huaraches are basically a long oval masa base that is deep fried and then grilled with meat and the ingredients that come on top of it," added Espinosa-Gonzalez.
Eva Gonzalez puts beans, lettuce, onions and cotija cheese on top of her huaraches.
She purchased the food truck that houses La Fajita nearly three years ago. She’s always loved cooking and said her late mother was her first teacher in the kitchen. She began tearing up as she remembered her.
"I've always like to cook. It reminds me of a happy memory I have of my mother and I. She is the one who taught me how to cook," Gonzalez said.
“The passion for cooking started off when she was younger. She basically took my grandma’s original recipes and made it into her own," Espinosa-Gonzalez added.
She is at La Fajita six days a week helping her mom run the food truck.
“A lot of people don’t take someone serious who has a thick accent, and it has been hard to get her voice heard in a way. So, it has been a dream of mine to push her along and help her dreams come true, as well as mine," Espinosa-Gonzalez said.
When Gonzalez first moved to Lansing 21 years ago, she started working at a factory but keeping a job wasn’t always easy.
"I've always wanted to get ahead, but people have treated me poorly for being a Latina and an immigrant. It's been hard, but it's made me stronger," she added.
What Espinosa-Gonzalez said makes La Fajita different from other Mexican spots in town is the authentic flavor of home her mom rings to her burritos, fajitas, huaraches and gorditas.
“She believes trying her food, people will become hooked right away," she explained.
Tantay (1611 E Kalamazoo St)
Next on the tour, on the east side of town is Tantay. The restaurant is located in the Allen Neighborhood Center’s Accelerator Kitchen.
Jose Aste is the owner. He says this is the only Peruvian restaurant in the Mid-Michigan region.
“I wanted to bring people together, is the point. Tantay means ‘to bring people together' [or] 'to join.’ It's a word in Quechua, which is the native language of the Incas," Aste explained.
The most popular dish here is Aji De Gallina, or Peruvian Spicy Creamed Chicken. He said he learned how to make the sauce from his mom.
“We use a little bread. We use some milk in there. We make our sauté that includes our 'Aji Amarillo.' And once everything is done, you put all in a blender makes this really nice flavorful, creamy sauce," he added.
Every dish at Tantay is made with Aji Amarillos, that's Peruvian yellow peppers.
When Aste first opened Tantay he used to buy the peppers frozen from a grocery store in Detroit, but now, he works with Lansing resident, Morgan Doherty, to grow them in town.
“Morgan and I work together. We've been working together, especially for the past, like two months. But they have a farm at Fenner, and they're growing Peruvian peppers in Lansing. Right here! So, this is this is amazing," he said.
At Tantay, everything is farm to table, from the microgreens he uses to decorate Peruvian potato salad, to the peppers in Aste’s favorite dish — Pollo Saltado, or Jumping Chicken.
It's a meal that takes elements from the food Chinese immigrants cooked when they came to Peru in the early 19th century.
“So we cook it on a wok, a big wok, at high heat, so that's why it's called 'saltado,' or 'jumping.' So, it's like Jumping Chicken — Pollo Saltado. Because the idea is when you're cooking it, it shouldn't take more than five minutes, you know, to cook that part of it," Aste said.
For Aste, making Peruvian cuisine isn’t just about the cooking or authentic ingredients, it’s about bringing people together. Something he says he's missed during the pandemic.
“I really genuinely love people. I'm really interested in people and going back to that experience of growing up with my parents cooking and just like everyone in the kitchen, everyone having so much fun, talking. Everything was around a kitchen, so I really want to create that, like an atmosphere that's inclusive and all that," he said.
Pablo's Old Town Mexican Restaurant
(311 E César E. Chávez Ave)
The last stop of our journey is Pablo’s Old Town Mexican Restaurant. It's one of the oldest Latin American restaurants in Lansing. The cozy establishment has been at its neighborhood home for 16 years.
Its namesake, Pablo Maldonado Chavez, sits at one of the handful of booths lining the walls.
Maldonado Chavez said before he opened Pablo’s, he was a truck driver during the week and a Mexican pastry chef on the weekends.
“So, when I get home in the weekends, I call all my friends to invite them to buy pan dulce 'sweetbreads.' So, the idea it starts when I saw the people were interested for more 'pan' every single day. They call me every time to ask for pan dulce," Maldonado Chavez said.
The interest from the community for the bread he baked at home drove him to quit his trucking job and open up a bakery.
While Maldonado Chavez started off with a menu that included traditional American fare like bagels, he quickly realized clients preferred the Mexican dishes he was also offering. Gorditas are the most ordered dish at Pablo’s.
“Gorditas are handmade tortillas, and they are stuffed with meat, with cheese and fried beans. It's like a pocket. A pocket of corn sandwich," he explained.
And what makes it uniquely Mexican? He said it's his wife’s recipes. She's based them on traditional dishes from the state of Puebla, Mexico.
“We have a Mole. Mole is originally from Puebla which is where I am from. She makes the Mole. She makes the tamales, and she makes the sauces, the salts and probably pretty much everything else, she has the recipe for everything," Maldonado Chavez explained.
At Pablo's, expect to be treated like a friend. Maldonado Chavez said that's what keeps his customers coming back for more.
“If somebody comes over here, as a customer, I don't let him go as a customer. I let him go back as a friend. It's the attitude that we take the customers," he added.
That's a feeling these restaurant owners all have in common; their love for the tastes of home and a desire to share them with their community here in Lansing.