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.

Spring in Traverse City: My Secret Season

After 30 years as a resident of Traverse City, writer Mike Norton has come to love all four seasons of the year in his adopted home. He freely admits that it took some time before he could properly appreciate the subtle beauty of a Northern Michigan spring—but now he’s an enthusiastic fan.

I may be one of the few people who arrived in Traverse City without having much of an idea how popular this place was in the summer months. I know better now.

But somehow it’s the other seasons of the year that have become especially precious to me  over the years, precisely because they’re not as well-publicized as summertime. That’s especially true of spring, which may be the loveliest time of year in the Traverse City area. Spring in these latitudes isn’t for sissies — it can be devilishly hard to predict when it will arrive or how long it will last. But I’ve lived through spring in a lot of nice places, and a proper Traverse City springtime is really just as good as it gets.

The summer crowds and heat haven’t arrived yet, and everyone seems to be wearing a mellow glow. I don’t know if it’s friendliness, or just gratitude that winter is finally over, but they seem genuinely glad to see you. People will stand in line for an hour to get a sundae at Bardon’s Wonder Freeze, the town’s iconic ice cream stand, mainly because they’re so busy chatting and getting reacquainted with each other that they don’t realize how long they’re standing there. 

I’m an incurable pedestrian, so most of my favorite experiences involve walking – and spring walks here are a feast, whether I’m ambling down a long deserted stretch of beach searching for Petoskey stones or hunting for morel mushrooms in a sun-dappled forest, listening to sudden bursts of birdsong from the branches overhead. 

Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff to do around here in spring.  It’s just that the season seems to bring a different kind of traveler to this land of dunes, lakes and forests. They’re looking for something special — a quiet retreat from the humdrum, a village shopping adventure, or a tasting tour of the beautiful wine country of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. (And it doesn’t hurt that in spring the enchantment of Traverse City is available at very reasonable prices.)

Here’s a little tip: between now and May 17, the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau is offering a special “Traverse City Escape” package that combines special rates at participating hotels and resorts with great deals at some of the area’s best restaurants and special discounts on shopping, spa services, movies, wine tastings and other entertainment.

So what would I recommend to my visiting friends? Well, on a single morning, you could enjoy one of the best meals you’ve ever had, amble through the shops and stores of a friendly, tree-shaded lakeport village like Suttons Bay or Elk Rapids, or cast your line into one of America’s most famous trout streams. You could paddle the shores of a forest lake, search for delectable morel mushrooms on the wooded hillsides, or just take a drive through the most gorgeous displays of spring wildflowers you’ll see anywhere.

With more than 150 inland lakes and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline — including the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, voted “Most Beautiful Place in America” last fall by viewers of Good Morning America –Traverse City offers almost limitless opportunities for boating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. (And although the water’s still a little chilly for swimming, I’m constantly surprised how many good sunbathing days there can be in a Traverse City spring!)

Surrounding Traverse City are deep, fragrant forests crisscrossed with trails for hikers, horseback riders and cyclists, and more than 20 golf courses with some of the most striking configurations ever designed. This is Michigan’s “Golf Coast,” an area Golf Digest named #12 on its list of the World’s Top 50 Golf Destinations.

Even the farms here are surrounded by incredible scenery. Long known as the cherry capital of the world, Traverse City is also an increasingly famous wine-producing region, with over 30 wineries and tasting rooms offering tours and tastings of their award-winning vintages, and its many restaurants are creating a national reputation for their fresh, innovative regional cuisine. And spring is an excellent time to enjoy some of it before everybody else arrives!

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid hiker and an enthusiastic (if rarely successful) mushroom-hunter, he lives in the village of Old Mission.