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.

All Square: A History of Detroit-Style Pizza

We’ve found that if there’s one food Michiganders know and love, it’s pizza! And while the best pizzas in Michigan can be found all across the state, some may argue that “Detroit-style” pies top the charts. Today, guest blogger and pizza enthusiast Tony Sinicropi takes us on a historical tour through the pizza of Detroit.

Call it square. Call it deep dish. Call it whatever you want – just know that it is uniquely Detroit and definitely Pure Michigan.

Buddy’s “Detroiter” Pizza

Detroit-style pizza, a descendent of Sicilian-style pizza, traces its roots to one man – Gus Guerra. In 1946, Gus owned what was then a neighborhood bar, Buddy’s Rendezvous, when he decided he needed something new for the menu. He enlisted the help of his wife, Anna, who borrowed a dough recipe from her Sicilian mother. The Sicilian dough, topped with cheese and tomato sauce, would become the model for pizza in Detroit.

The key ingredient in a proper Detroit-style pizza isn’t something you eat – it’s the pan. The key characteristics of the pizza – the soft and airy square crust, the crunchy exterior, the caramelized cheese that edges the pizza – are all due to the deep pans in which the pizzas are baked. The pans are a thick steel pan that are more similar to a cast iron skillet than a cake pan. Legend has it that Gus got his initial batch of pans from a friend who worked in a factory that used the pans for spare parts. Detroiters have been fighting for corner slices ever since.

Armed with empty stomachs and a passion for good pizza, we embarked on a tour to trace the genealogy of Detroit-style pizza.

The Spirit of Detroit prefers his pizza square

Our first stop was Gus’ original restaurant – Buddy’s Rendezvous at 6-Mile and Conant. We went with the classic Detroiter – cheese, sauce, and pepperoni on top so that it crisps up and chars slightly. The sauce is what sets Buddy’s pizzas apart – the bright tomato sauce and hit of herbs act as the perfect complement to the salty pepperoni. With the bocce ball courts outside and a bar area lined with pictures of Tigers legends, Buddy’s is a landmark worthy of its reputation.

Next on our itinerary was Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant in Eastpointe, founded by Gus & Anna after they sold Buddy’s Rendezvous in 1953. Cloverleaf claims to carry on the original recipe that Gus developed at Buddy’s. The extra crispy edges on this pie received high praise from the group.

Our next stop on the lineage tour was Loui’s in Hazel Park – founded by a long-time chef at Buddy’s, Louis Tourtois, which explains the similarity between the pizzas at each location. Similar to Buddy’s, Loui’s is frozen in time with its checkered tablecloths and hundreds of empty Chianti bottles that hang from the ceiling.

Finally, we made it to the new kid on the block, Detroit Style Pizza Company in St. Clair Shores, run by Gus Guerra mentee Shawn Randazzo. After owning and operating a Cloverleaf location with his mother for 16 years, Shawn decided to branch out and put his own spin on the square pie and opened Detroit Style Pizza Company earlier this year. Shawn was recently crowned as the World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the 2012 International Pizza Challenge. After trying his “Margherita in the D” pizza, I can see why. The sauce made of crushed tomatoes and topped with fresh basil, roasted garlic, and red onion provided a nice change of pace from the more traditional places.

The great thing about visiting these places is that you can’t go wrong with any of them. Next time you are in the Detroit area, be sure to stop in and grab a slice of pizza history.

A born and raised Michigander, Tony runs the blog Great Lakes, Better Food, which chronicles his food adventures from all over the state. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and their dog, Lucy, who are both eager to accompany him on his adventures.

Salad Love in Pure Michigan

A sweet-savory salad of pear slices, bleu cheese, spiced walnuts and field greens dressed with tarragon shallot vinaigrette at Lulu's

George Hendrix, contributing writer for Michigan Travel Ideas, might not look like your typical salad eater, but he can’t get enough at two of chef Mike Peterson’s restaurants—Lulu’s in Bellaire and Siren Hall in Elk Rapids.

Put me in a line up, ask a dozen strangers to pick out the salad eater, and I’m everyone’s last choice. I’ve got the body for bratwurst, but I have a taste for micro greens. On my most recent visit to northwest Michigan, I particularly enjoyed salads at Lulu’s in Bellaire and Siren Hall in Elk Rapids. Both restaurants are the creations of chef Mike Peterson.

More on the salads in a minute. First, a bit about Mike.

Lulu's has a sleek minimalist design, and is a must-visit for foodies in Bellaire.

His is a fairly typical story in this exceptional-food realm radiating outward from Traverse City to encompass the resort towns along and near Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse and Little Traverse Bays, the Leelanau Peninsula and the dozens of inland lakes. The story is: local boy or girl with a talent for food leaves to get a world-class culinary education; completes apprenticeships in one or more foodie heavens; gets homesick for blue water, golden beaches, a cornucopia of fresh ingredients, a mellow lifestyle; and comes home. In Mike’s case, the education came at the Culinary Institute of America and the apprenticeships took place in Paris and New York kitchens.

In 1993, Mike and a few partners opened Spencer Creek in Alden. Now closed, that restaurant served as the dress rehearsal for Lulu’s. Since 2001, the downtown Bellaire bistro, with a sleek minimalist design and decor, has been among the region’s must-go dinner destinations. The chef’s latest project is Siren Hall in downtown Elk Rapids, a few blocks from the Victorian-Era home where he and his wife, Rebecca, are raising their four kids.

Siren Hall has an emphasis on oysters and other seafood with a name that honors the mythical sirens of the deep.

Siren Hall is even more Spartan, with concrete block walls, exposed roof beams and other industrial touches. The look is the creation of Rebecca, another northwest Michigan native, who earned her design chops in New York City.

Now the food.

At Lulu’s, I enjoyed a sweet-savory salad of pear slices, blue cheese, spiced walnuts and field greens dressed with tarragon shallot vinaigrette. I chased my healthy repast with a cup—well, more like a soup bowl—of Lulu’s chocolate cherry cake ice cream. “Some of my cooks love making ice cream,” Mike explained.

I finished the evening down the street with an Americano at Moka, the coffee shop, bakery and restaurant owned by Mike’s brother Bill.

The concrete block walls, exposed roof beams and other industrial touches create the atmosphere at Siren Hall.

My special-of-the-day salad at Siren Hall consisted of warm haricot verts (or as they’re known outside of France, baby green beans) dressed with truffle oil vinaigrette, blue cheese and bacon curls. Marcona almonds provide an amazingly tasty crunch.

The salads are straightforward enough that, even if I have to go looking for the almonds (if you go searching, try Costco) and truffle oil, I think I can re-create them while waiting for the bratwursts to grill, right?

George Hendrix, freelance writer and former Travel Editor of Midwest Living, also contributes to Michigan Travel Ideas. From snowmobile adventures to the centennial of the Model T, he has written about Michigan for nearly 25 years.