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.

Ann Arbor Restaurant Week 2013 – Michigan’s Largest Restaurant Week – Starts Sunday

With a record 55 restaurants participating, Ann Arbor’s Restaurant Week is the largest in the state of Michigan, taking place January 20 – 25. This is the prime time to try some new flavors and make the trip to Ann Arbor for some of the great food the area is known for. To prepare, we decided to talk to some of the rock stars of restaurant week in Ann Arbor. See what they had to say below and let us know which restaurant(s) you’ll be visiting next week!

Chef Duc Tang: Pacific Rim by Kana

Cuisine/Cooking style: I would describe our cuisine as ‘contemporary Pan-Asian’.  The menu reflects my interpretation of various Asian cuisines that I grew up eating.  

Fun Fact:  I have a masters degree in theology.  

Career highlight: I am proud of our great staff and of the fact that they consider Pacific Rim the best restaurant to work for.  

Menu Recommendation: For the winter weather, I recommend our hearty Asian-braised lamb shanks with coconut-sweet potato puree.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar.

Chef Brandon Johns: The Grange Kitchen & Bar

Cuisine/Cooking style: Straight-forward, seasonal cooking; we are known for our serious and thorough commitment to local sourcing, use of quality products, our whole animal, nose-to-tail cooking approach, and our talented pastry Chef, Melissa Richards. 

Fun Fact: The kitchen stays open until 1am on weekends.   

Career Highlight: We have won the Edible WOW Local Hero award twice for our dedication and contributions to the local food movement.

Menu Recommendation: The chicken and spicy chicken sausage hash.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar or Mercy’s Restaurant at the Bell Tower.

Chef Brendan McCall: Isalita (and Mani Osteria & Bar)

Cuisine/Cooking style: I am a flavor first chef.  I want flavors to be punchy and upfront while keeping the food approachable.  Then we work in a twist or little surprise that adds a layer of discovery to each dish.

Fun Fact: Many of the dishes at Isalita were inspired by a trip that Adam Baru (co-owner) and I took to Mexico City this past summer.

Career Highlight: I’m most proud of the staff culture that we’ve created at Mani Osteria and have continued in Isalita.  Creating great food is only one ingredient to a successful restaurant.  

Menu Recommendation: We are launching petite enchiladas during restaurant week that will become a permanent part of the Isalita menu from then on.  One is a coconut braised chicken in red chili sauce and the other is a shrimp and crab enchilada in roasted salsa verde.  

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Pacific Rim has been a long time favorite of mine since I moved to Ann Arbor 13 years ago.  However, Raven’s Club has recently made major menu changes that, in my opinion, place it at the forefront of the growing restaurant culture in Ann Arbor.

Chef Eve Aronoff: Frita Batidos

Cuisine/Cooking style: My style is full flavored with a lot of textures and contrasts – while still maintaining balance and harmony of the flavors.  I am based in French philosophy and technique, but am influenced from cuisines around the world – N. African, W. African, Cuban, and Vietnamese.  I’m committed to Slow Food Movement – working with local farmers and purveyors, following the seasons, making food from scratch and encouraging the warmth and conviviality of cooking and dining.

Fun Fact: There are actually a lot of ‘light’ dishes on the menu!

Career Highlight: Being invited to go to the James Beard Foundation to create a multi-course menu for the foundation members, as well as being selected to represent the Huron Valley Slow Food Movement to go to Terra Madre.

Menu Recommendation: I’d recommend trying the ‘Eve’ menu we are creating. This will include some of the favorite dishes from Eve (her previous Ann Arbor restaurant).  ‘Inspired Nachos’, Pots de Creme  - as well as a dish which was extremely beloved but extremely labor intensive so we made it for special occasions – Seafood and Prosciutto Lasagna.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar or Pacific Rim.

Chef John Fischer: Gratzi

Cuisine/Cooking style: Our focus is regional Italian cuisine with emphasis on the north. 

Fun Fact: We’ve featured different regions of Italy as our culinary focus each month for the past 10 years.

Career Highlights: At Gratzi, we’ve won numerous awards over the years, including ‘Best Italian’ in AnnArbor.com’s reader poll for three out of the four years, as well as Open Table awards for two years running. We also have five wine spectator awards of excellence.

Menu Recommendation: For the first time during restaurant week we are offering regional preparations instead of regular menu items. I hope folks take advantage and try something new.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? I’m always way too busy to go out during restaurant week, but Downtown Ann Arbor has so many choices for dining it’s hard not to find something to like.

Set restaurant week prices are $15 for lunch and $28 for dinner (if you’re on a budget, over half of these restaurants offer 2 for 1 deals with at these price points). Peruse the menus at www.annarborrestaurantweek.com, and make your reservations early!