Experience Authentic Mexican Flavors at Grand Rapids Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids is coming up August 14-24! Today, Kirsetin Morello of Grand Rapids gives us a behind-the-scenes look at one of the participating restaurants. Read from her below and learn more by visiting ExperienceGR.com.

Alambre Especial. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Mercedes Lopez-Duran was a little girl, she imagined she might go to the head of the class when she grew up—as a teacher. Instead, today she’s the head of a thriving, local restaurant. Lopez-Duran is the owner and creative chef at El Granjero, a Grand Rapids restaurant that prides itself on serving delicious, authentic Mexican dishes like grilled cactus, and bright pink, sweet Jamaica (pronounced ha-my-cah) juice made from the Jamaica flower.

Lopez-Duran’s path to restaurant ownership and culinary creativity took a few twists and turns. As a young woman she entered the business world rather than teaching, working as a secretary in an accounting office. She later pursued schooling to become an accountant herself, but married before she embarked on a career filled with numbers and balance sheets. Once married, Lopez-Duran stayed home and it was more than a decade before she returned to the workforce.

Fifth Anniversary ribbon cutting at El Granjero. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Lopez-Duran decided to return to work, she ditched the accounting idea and turned to her passion: cooking. She inquired at restaurants in Mexico City, but without restaurant experience was only able to find work as a dishwasher. Her new manager assured her that if she worked hard she could rise through the ranks. Such a roadblock might have dissuaded a less determined person, but not Lopez-Duran. Three days after she began her new dishwashing job, she received her first promotion.

Mercedez Lopez-Duran and her daughter, Paola R. Mendivil. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

In time, Lopez-Duran moved from Mexico City to the United States, and took a job waitressing—her first time serving tables—at Tacos El Ganadero in Grand Rapids.  (At 5’ tall, she didn’t meet the requirement for Mexico City restaurants that waiters be at least 5’ 1”!) When the owner of Tacos El Ganadero decided to close the restaurant and move out of state, Lopez-Duran was concerned about the other employees losing their jobs and decided to buy the restaurant rather than allowing it to close. “Working in the kitchens, my mother always thought about having her own restaurant one day,” says her daughter and El Granjero co-owner, Paola R. Mendivil. “ She just didn’t know it would be so soon!”

Although it’s quite a leap from waitress to owner and cook, Lopez-Duran was undaunted. By that time, she’d worked in restaurants for 15 years and she understood how to run the kitchen. “All the time I was working,” she says, “I was learning.”

Lopez-Duran and Mendivil changed the restaurant’s name to El Granjero, which means “the farmer” in Spanish, to reflect their desire to have farm fresh ingredients on the menu. Lopez-Duran’s creativity didn’t stop with her initial menu overhaul: she still seeks inspiration for new dishes today. On a recent trip to the Mexico City region, she found exciting, new, authentic dishes to try, including quesadillas made with Jamaica flower.

Customers can try her inspired creations during Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids, which runs from 8/14/13 – 8/24/13. For just $25, two people will be able to sample several different tastes during a 3-course authentic Mexican dinner that includes a shared appetizer, two main dishes (one selection includes the quesadilla with Jamaica flower), and two delectable desserts

Molcajete. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

For a sweet treat, try their Fresas con Crema, which showcases Michigan strawberries (it’s similar to strawberries and cream, but with a slightly different sweet sauce). The Fresas con Crema is Mendivil’s favorite dessert but Lopez-Duran favors the Chongos Zamoranos, a sort of sweet, curdled milk made with whole milk, sugar, and cinnamon. During Restaurant Week, you can try either, or both—or try the third dessert option, a Mexican-style gelatin that made with spiked eggnog, called Gelatina con Rompope.

Whichever option you choose, you can’t lose at El Granjero. With a farm-fresh focus and customer-oriented service, you’ll be sure to enjoy an authentic meal from the Mexico City region, right here in Grand Rapids. And don’t be surprised if Lopez-Duran herself takes your order—she’s as likely to wait and clean tables as she is to cook and create dishes in the kitchen. “I like doing everything,” she says. “I don’t like things to be the same all the time. I like to be moving.”

El Granjero shared this Fresh Cactus Salad recipe for our readers:

El Granjero's Fresh Cactus Salad recipe. Click to enlarge.

Click here to find a list of all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week, along with the special menus they’ll be offering.

Other profiles in our Restaurant Week series:

Pat Wise, Executive Chef at Grove

For more things to do in Grand Rapids, visit michigan.org.

Kirsetin Morello is a writer, author, and blogger who’s called Grand Rapids home for more than a decade. She’s enthusiastic about yoga, basketball and travel, and is a reluctant runner. Kirsetin, her husband, and their three children love to explore everything West Michigan has to offer. You can find her online at www.KirsetinMorello.com.

Sweet as Pie: Meet Linda Hundt of Downtown Market Grand Rapids’ Sweetie-Licious Bakery

Guest Blogger Molly Clauhs grew up in Pennsylvania, studied Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Upstate New York, and then moved to Michigan to plant some roots, open a food truck, and get involved in the burgeoning food movement. She currently coordinates the leasing process for the Downtown Market Grand Rapids, where she works with small food businesses affording her an inside look at the foodie Mecca, opening Fall 2013.

The Downtown Market will feature an outdoor farmers market, teaching kitchens, rooftop greenhouses, banquet and meeting space, full-service restaurants, office space, and a market hall featuring 24 permanent, year round food businesses to offer a “main street shopping experience.”  Here, Molly will introduce you to one of the unique businesses that will be making the Downtown Market home.

A Sweetie-Licious Bakery pie. Photo courtesy of David Tilley, Downtown Market GR.

I’m frequently asked, “Where’d you learn to cook?” I’m tempted to say I spent a year in a tiny Parisian kitchen working through a stack of French cookbooks or was the star student at a prestigious culinary school or that I toiled away in a restaurant kitchen getting barked at and chopping onions. Nope. I grew up with a mother who loved to cook and a grandmother who lived next door and was always in the kitchen, enjoying herself. The love of cooking and eating became part of me.

This warm spring weather, hatching into summer, sends my mind back to the farm where I spent my first eighteen years. Around this time of year, I started checking my grandmother’s cherry tree. The tree was conveniently located off a small staircase that led to their front door, so if I climbed up the side railings I could lean over and examine the flowers, buds, unripe fruit, and eventually, the bright red sour cherries.

As soon as they were ripe, we’d begin picking them by the basket full. I’d still be balanced precariously over the railing with one hand holding on and one hand picking cherries. My grandmother and I would run the cherries through an old-fashioned hand-cranked pitter in the sunroom. Now for the best part, we’d bake cherry pies, and of course freeze the extra fruit to use throughout the year.

Let me introduce you to Linda Hundt, proprietor of Sweetie-Licious Bakery, one of the Downtown Market’s newest tenants. She built a business on the foundation of stories like mine: memories that center on food, family, and love.

Linda Hundt, owner of Sweetie-Licious bakery, gathered up family recipes, nostalgia, and a talent for baking gained through coming of age in a family of home cooks preparing meals from scratch daily as an expression of love and art.

Linda Hundt at Sweetie-Licious Bakery. Photo courtesy of David Tilley, Downtown Market GR.

She took all that goodness and created a bakery that is so cute you want to pinch its cheeks, if only that was possible. The bakery is located in DeWitt, Michigan, about fifteen miles outside of Lansing. Good news, Grand Rapids: Linda and her team are opening their second location at the Downtown Market.

I’m temped to write on and on about Linda’s positive energy and sunny disposition, but you’ve seen her photo and hopefully it conveys her spirit. From my experience, Linda is usually wearing an adorable dress, carrying a pie, and smiling.

However, it wasn’t always that way. Linda graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in elementary education. She considered culinary school but as was the norm a few decades ago, her mother steered her towards a career that would be conducive to raising a family.

Several years later, her husband’s business went under, teaching jobs weren’t available, and Linda began a career in politics that she maintained for fifteen years. Linda was depressed and uninspired and felt she was not living a purposeful life. “It got to the point with my depression that I had to sink or swim and I wasn’t going to sink.”

In 2002 Linda began baking pies fulltime and soon thereafter opened her bakery that she always refers to as “the cutest little pie shop in the world.” She realized as a child that food and love are linked and she and her staff, clad in pink aprons and big smiles, “love everyone who walks through the door.”

Sweetie-Licious opening at the Downtown Market means we’ll finally have a destination for pie in Grand Rapids. I don’t still live next door to my grandmother and her cherry tree, but a good old fashioned slice of cherry pie will remind me of my roots in a form of edible nostalgia.

We’re lucky to have Sweetie-Licious opening in Grand Rapids, led by an entrepreneur seeking a purposeful life and to spread love “one pie at a time.”  In the meantime, while the cherries are ripening and we’re anticipating the Downtown Market opening later this summer, give Linda’s “Cherry Cherry Crisp” recipe a try.

Sweetie-Licious Cherry Cherry Crisp recipe. Click to enlarge.

Sweetie-Licious Cherry Cherry Crisp recipe. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Guest Blogger Molly Clauhs coordinates the leasing process for the
Downtown Market Grand Rapids
, where she works with small food businesses affording her an inside look at the foodie Mecca, opening Fall 2013.

The Search for the Best Burger in Michigan

This summer, John “Gonzo” Gonzalez of MLive searched far and wide across the state for Michigan’s best burger. After six days of traveling 1,700 miles and visiting 33 restaurants, he found one thing for sure – Michigan is home to a number of great burgers! Read about John’s experience below and be sure to check out the list of Michigan’s best burgers for more.

I looked down at the end of the bar at Miller’s in Dearborn, where I saw a young man eating his second burger. “Man, you must love this place to eat TWO burgers!” I said. Still chewing, he held up his hand, flashing three fingers. “No,” I said. “I only saw TWO burgers in front of you.” He gulped down his bite and said, “I order two that I eat immediately, and then I order a third one,” he said. “Oh, I see, you order a third one to go?” “Oh no,” he said. “I’ll eat it here. I just don’t want it to get cold, that’s why I wait to order the third one.”

That’s the passion I discovered at every stop on our search for Michigan’s Best Burger 2013. Whether it was patrons, chefs, owners, managers or employees, there is a Michigan passion for a good, old fashioned burger with cheese and your favorite toppings.

We have done these searches before:

Michigan’s Best Coney Dog (American Coney in Detroit),
Best BBQ (West Texas BBQ in Jackson),
Best Ice Cream Parlor (MOO-ville Creamery in Nashville),
Best Haunted House (Erebus in Pontiac), and
Best Breakfast (Anna’s House in Grand Rapids).

But our search for Michigan’s Best Burger was by far our most extensive one. After a nomination process that involves our readers, we put up polls in all of our markets to determine the readers’ favorites. Once we have that list, I hit the road.

This time we traveled 1,700 miles, visited 33 restaurants and did it over a period of six days. We visited burger joints from Sault Ste. Marie to Detroit, Bay City to Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor to Muskegon. On some days we visited 7 restaurants in one day.

If any of you have followed our other searches, I often take along an expert or companion who helps me out. It’s not easy eating all this food. On our search for Michigan’s Best Coney Dog, I was joined by Joe Grimm (co-author of “Coney Detroit”). On BBQ, it was the president of the Great Lakes Barbecue Association, Mike Terry of Flushing. And for our breakfast search it was Mike Jensen, a retired prison cook from Saranac.

For burgers, we were joined by David Kutzko, a Western Michigan University professor of Classics (Greek and Latin) who has a huge appetite and spends a lot of time checking out Michigan restaurants. Also, we were joined by Fritz Klug, a statewide reporter for MLive and David’s former student whose intention was to tag along on our trip to the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan. But we couldn’t shake him.

What we discovered: Michigan residents love their burgers!

Most of the burgers on our Top 10 list were cooked on flattop grills and used a blend of 80 percent lean meat, and 20 percent fat. Many used a hand press. All of them are flipped only once.

Each place had a little different method; some used a secret seasoning, others used salt and pepper, and some used no seasoning at all.

The secret was in the meat, and the preparation method. We also took into account creativity, buns and those intangibles that make you want to order a second – or third – burger before you leave!

Here is our Top 10 List:

  1. Michigan burger map. Credit: Ed Riojas/Mlive.com

    Laura’s Little Burger Joint, 47141 M-51, Decatur

  2. West Pier Drive-In, 601 W. Portage Ave., Sault Ste. Marie
  3. Miller’s Bar, 23700 Michigan Ave., Dearborn
  4. Talley’s Log Cabin Bar, 2981 County Road 612, Lewiston
  5. Stella’s Lounge, 53 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
  6. Brown Bear, 147 N. Michigan Ave., Shelby
  7. Schlenker’s Sandwich Shop, 1104 E. Ganson St., Jackson
  8. Torch Bar & Grill, 522 Buckham Alley, Flint
  9. Schuberg’s Bar & Grill, 109 N. Michigan Ave., Big Rapids
  10. Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger, 551 S Division St., Ann Arbor

Take a look at our complete list of 33 finalists; you won’t go wrong at any one of them.

Where’s your favorite place to get a burger in Pure Michigan? Share with us in the comments section below!

As the Statewide Entertainment writer for MLive Media Group, which represents eight newspapers throughout the state, as well as MLive.com and AnnArbor.com, John Gonzalez oversees the “Michigan’s Best” series. He has led statewide searches for Michigan’s Best BBQ, Ice Cream Parlor, Breakfast, Coney Dogs and most recently, Burgers. John is based in Grand Rapids, but has worked in Detroit, Lansing, Mt. Pleasant, Flint, Holland and Bay City.  He is originally from Capac, Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter at @MichiganGonzo.