Saturday, April 3, 2010

Born-again Burrito

The unexpected and dramatic change in weather lately has gotten me jazzed for my favorite spring rituals: cutting back the roses, clearing away the dead leaves from last fall, and anxiously awaiting the return of my spring flowers. Tulips are my favorite because for me they are the quintessential symbol for rebirth and renewal. Nothing says spring quite like the awkward leaves of the tulip pushing themselves out of the earth. I even wrote a poem a few years ago honoring this hearty metaphor-laden flower.

The First Tulip

The first tulip is pushing itself

Through its underground uterine bulb

Out the earthy birth canal

And into the first light of April.

The awkward leaves come first, fat digits

Backing out breach, spreading themselves

To make room for the torso and head

The way it’s been rehearsed for years.

Inside, I stand by the window and watch

Like a father whose been through this before,

Who knows his presence is useless as language,

Who knows that May is coming hard and fast.

The first tulip, still in its prolific cradle,

Follows the sun like a mother’s loaded breast,

Weeping and wailing as it opens, full bloom

As if its life depended on it.

Last summer I built six raised flower beds in my back yard, and at the end of the season I bought a hundred tulip bulbs that I planted, by hand, along the perimeter of each bed and along the perimeter of the whole garden. A hundred. So when I looked out the window the other morning and saw a deer standing in the middle of one of the beds with a tulip bulb hanging out of its mouth, I think my impromptu string of curse words was completely justified.

Philip thought I was overreacting and behaving like a raving lunatic, with the whole flailing of the arms and slobber hitting the window thing, but he’s the one who slipped on his Birkenstocks, flung open the back door and stormed into the back yard hootin’ and hollerin’ at the dumb-struck deer.

The losses were devastating. When the dust cleared, there were mini craters everywhere. My garden looked like dozens of little improvised explosive devices went off all at once. As I surveyed the damage, looking for any sign of life, I managed to find two bulbs, barely alive, tiny leaves just poking out of the mulch. While the challenges that lie ahead are great, I have hope. Hope in survival. Hope in rebirth. Hope in renewal. Hope that I might find a few more survivors so my garden doesn’t look totally pathetic.

These are the thoughts that filled my head as I sat at a table with Stephanie in a new Mexican restaurant on Thursday.

Laredo, nestled in a residential area on the corner of Lapeer and Genesee, popped up nineteen months ago with little fanfare. Had I not been scouring earlier in the day, I never would have found it. As it turns out, it’s the best kept secret in the local culinary community, and of the twenty-some Mexican restaurants Stephanie and I have been to since early September, this one is far and away the best.

I know, that’s what I said last week when we finally got around to eating at El Rio Ondo. In fact, I expected to be totally let down and disappointed this week, because El Rio Ondo was so good I was certain nothing could top it. Come to find out, it’s not the most right I’ve ever been. Laredo is my new top contender for best all-around Mexican restaurant in Flint. Best in Show is the most prestigious of the TTC Awards, and, dare I say it, Laredo looks like the Titanic of this year’s nominees. And for good reason, I discovered.

Cookie is the owner of Laredo, and she also runs her own kitchen. She came out to our table to talk to us and what she shared made my jaw nearly hit the floor. Have you ever heard of Cookie’s Taco House? It’s a tiny place on North Saginaw street in a really tough part of town. Well, Cookie owned that restaurant with her mother about twenty years ago. Then she decided to get out of the business, and she opened a hair and nail salon, which she ran for eighteen years. As she put it, “I wanted to something different with my life. My baby brother wanted to get into the business, so he took over Cookie’s with my mother.”

Cookie realized, as the economy began to tank and business started to go south in her hair and nail shop, that she had to do something else to survive, so she made the decision to come back to the restaurant business, and that is how Laredo was born—or reborn as it were.

I knew we were in for something special as soon as our waitress delivered the chips and salsa to our table. The chips had just come out of the fryer and were piping hot. The salsa, for the first time all year, looked like the salsa I’d make at home. It consisted, quite simply of fresh diced tomatoes, finely chopped onion, lots of chopped cilantro, and a little salt. It was visually appealing, it was hearty, and above all, it was fresh. We ordered the house hot version as well, and it was equally delicious. Instead of the usual jalapeno or cayenne pepper, Cookie uses habaneros in her salsa, which gave it as kickin’ hot bite, but it wasn’t so hot that you need a pitcher of water as a chaser. Both of these are official TTC nominees.

While we waited for our entrees, the waitress shared something else with us that I found truly amazing. Laredo is the seventh Mexican restaurant to open in Flint at the hands of Cookie and her extended family. They also own El Rio Ondo, El Especial, La Azteca, La Familia, Cookie’s Taco House and, get this, El Nopal. These are some of the very best Mexican restaurants that I’ve visited and, according to Cookie, the family is set to open yet another one, Lupes, within the next month. This one will be on Elms Road in Flint Township.

Considering Cookie spent half of her time talking to us in the dining room, I was amazed at how quickly our food came out. I ordered the Chimichanga platter, which is served with a brown gravy, sour cream and a side of beans and rice. I had just told Stephanie a few minutes earlier how disappointed I was that most restaurants make burritos and chimis with small shells and put two of them side by side. I was reminiscing about the days when, as a cook in a local diner, I made burritos with twelve inch shells that were so big we had to serve them on platters.

Moments after I finished my tale, out comes the biggest chimichanga I think I’ve ever seen. It was stuffed solid with chunks of beef and topped with a light brown, peppery gravy. The sauce was so light and so flavorful, and so not the tomato based enchilada sauce that everyone else uses. The chimi shell was evenly cooked, and the beans and rice were every bit as flavorful as the ones I had last week at El Rio Ondo. Now I really have to make it a point to get back to El Nopal to try their chimichangas again, because Cookie’s chimi just made the TTC nomination list.

Stephanie’s plate was equally fresh, light, and delicious. She ordered a combination plate, which came with a medium shell taco, a tostada, an enchilada, and a tamale. The latter two items were covered in the same gravy as my chimi. In addition to the beans and rice, both of our dishes were accompanied by a beef stew, which was great. It’s just that we had so much food, we had trouble getting to it all.

Laredo is one of the few places in town worthy of putting the phrase “authentic Mexican food” on its menu. It’s the kind of Mexican food we’ve been looking for all year, and now that we’ve found it, we will be back for sure. Laredo is fairly new and Cookie said business is picking up but still a little slower than she’d like, so I’m appealing to you to help Cookie put Laredo on the map as the best new authentic Mexican restaurant in town. Drop by and see for yourself how good her food is. Now that Cookie is back doing what she does best, and now that her spirit has been renewed, I’m pretty sure we’ll see Laredo bloom like the beautiful flower it was meant to be.


  1. I love mexican food...I will be sure to drop by and check yours out!

  2. I'm heading there for lunch today, on your recommendation.

  3. Great to hear from you again, Robert. I hope your experience at Laredo was as good as mine. Are you in on the Flint Lunch Club, the site where students are eating lunch on a budget and writing about the experience. Changing Perceptions of Flint gave it a plug today.

  4. Hey tkedo, let me know what kind of experience you have. I'd really like to help out Laredo by pushing customers their way.

  5. I am in on the Flint Lunch Club! The size of the group has about doubled from the first week, and we're all planning to walk over to the Farmer's Market this Thursday.

  6. Robert, I love the idea of this and I'm glad you're invloved. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help out.

  7. I've eaten Laredo's several times and it's fantastic. Not only is the food quality but the prices are extremely reasonable. I remember the first time I went there and we started out ordering chips and salsa. The chips were fresh out of the fryer but no salsa accompanied them. After a couple minutes I asked the waitress where it was. She smiled sheepishly and said that it was still being prepared.

    The cook (I assume it was Cookie, she was a matronly woman of some years) made fresh salsa for us.

    The only down side is the place is always deserted.

    That and it's on the east side. ;)

  8. After the sudden closure of Los Cuatro Amigos, my wife and I have been at a loss as to what our new favorite Mexican restaurant will be. This location seems to be cursed, as there have been many restaurants (including a Middle Eastern joint) that have come and gone there. We'll definitely try this place soon.

  9. Bob,
    Vickie and I tried Laredo's yesterday, and Guadalajara Grill last Sunday. Since we've now got a kid who just sleeps through meals in a car seat, we're enjoying Mexican lunches while we can. We liked Laredo's a lot--a huge step up from most of the places around town. But we loved Guadalajara even more. Great stuff (and we even saw someone using the Red Phone).

  10. John, I'm intrigued that you liked gaudalajara more than Laredo. I respect your opinion (Vickie's is another matter :) and am interested in your comparative assessment.

    Love to the newest woman in your family.