Monday, May 24, 2010

And The Tator Tot Goes To......

Now that the Mexican Restaurant Tour has officially ended, Stephanie and I have spent the last few weeks reminiscing about all the places we visited and all the great experiences we had over the past eight months. We’ve even gone back to a few of our favorite joints just to make sure they’re still living up to their greatness.

When we started the tour, I expected to see a wide variety of preparation and presentation of food. I expected a whole lot of Tex-Mex. And I expected that I wouldn’t be blown away by the quality of the food. As you can tell by many of my posts, I was certainly wrong about my last expectation. The food was far better, collectively, than I imagined, and a lot of the places I had never been to are now on my list of favorites that I’ll go back to over and over again.

The number of restaurants that served Tex-Mex (or Midwest-Mex in some cases) far outnumbered those that served what I would call authentic Mexican food. The difference between Tex-Mex and authentic, by the way, is quite dramatic. To me, authentic is distinguished by its preparation—it’s prepared with fewer ingredients, and those ingredients are packed with flavors and textures that make the food unique; authentic is much lighter in taste and flavors, and yet it’s a much more complex mix of flavors. Cheese and heaviness do not dominate authentic Mexican food.

The most surprising thing I learned, though, is that Flint has a robust Mexican Restaurant scene run by owners who care about their customers, who care about making really good food, and who are an integral part of their community. What’s surprising in all of this, is that the Mexican Restaurant scene is so low key that too many people in the larger Flint community don’t even know how special and important it is to the area, both culturally and economically. Of all the places we’ve been to this year, over half of them were places I’d never been to before.

My hope is that by sharing with you all the places Stephanie and I have visited, you’ll be inspired to try some of them yourself (I know many of you already have). To help you think about the great food and the great places that serve it, I offer you the following lists, which you should feel free to print, post on your refrigerator, and consult the next time you get a hankering for good Mexican food. You might even print an extra copy or two to share with your friends. It’s a small gesture that will go a long way to supporting our Mexican restaurants now and into the future.


In the end, we were able to visit 25 Mexican restaurants in and around Flint. I shared with you in an early post that UrbanSpoon. Com listed almost 60 Mexican restaurants in the area. After I eliminated all of the national chains (I could believe how many Taco Bell’s we have in this county!), the number dropped considerably. Still, we have a lot of choice when going out for Mexican. Here are the ones that we tried:

El Potrero (Hill Road and Fenton Road)

Poncho’s (Dort Highway and Atherton Road)

Alejandro’s ( Elms Road) CLOSED

El Charrito (Downtown Davison)

Tia Helita’s (South Saginaw Street)

Senor Lucky’s (Davison)

La Familia Morales (Fifth Avenue)

The Red Baron (Center Road)

El Especial: (Linden Road and Pasadena)

Nuevo Vallarta (Saginaw Street, Grand Blanc)

La Azteca (Court Street at Corunna Road)

El Cozumel (Court Street, in Courtland Center)

Sagebrush Cantina (Leroy Road, Fenton)

Soyla’s (Saginaw Street and Second Street)

Puerto Vallarta (Linden Road)

Guadalajara Grill (South Dort Highway)

El Adobe (North Saginaw, Mt. Morris)

El Charrito (Richfield Road)

Fajita’s Grill (South Saginaw, Grand Blanc)

El Rio Ondo (Davison Road and Irish Road)

Laredo (Lapeer and Genesee)

El Chico (North Dort Highway)

Los Ponchos (Fenton Road)

Marie’s (North Genesee)

Lupe’s (Elms Road)


Regardless of where we went, the foods in the list below stood out as our favorites. Sometimes they were the only good thing about our meal, while at other times they were a part of a whole tableful of goodness. After much deliberations, and a couple of really good Margaritas at Blacktone’s one hot afternoon last week, we settled on the following favorite dishes. We’ve tried to include two in each category so you can compare for yourself and see how different preparations of the same food can produce different kinds of yumminess.

House Salsa: El Cozumel and Laredo (smooth) Laredo (chunky)

Hot Salsa: Laredo (chunky) El Potrero (smooth) El Rio Ondo (extra hot)

Salsa Combination: El Especial (the trinity) El Rio Ondo (the quartet)

Chips: Lupe’s Senor Lucky’s Laredo

Cheese Dip: Lupe’s Laredo

Beef Stew: El Charrito (Richfield Road) Laredo

Refried Beans: El Potrero El Rio Ondo

Mexican Rice: La Familia Morales Laredo

Green Sauce: El Potrero El Adobe

Tacos: La Familia Morales Los Ponchos

Golden Tacos: La Familia Morales Larado

Enchilada: Soyla’s El Adobe

Chimichanga: El Charrito (Davison) Laredo


As I’ve always said, the food is the star in any dining experience, but the supporting actors and actresses have to pull their weight too. I’ve had good meals that were ruined by other aspects of the experience. I’ve also had food that seems to have been enhanced by my fascination with a non-food aspect of my visit. The following short list is a good example:

Ambience: El Adobe Alejandro’s (now closed) Lupe’s

Curbside Appeal: El Adobe Nuevo Vallarta

Quirkiest experience: Guadalajara Grill El Chico


And then there are the Tator Tot Casserole Award Winners. These dishes were so good, they rose above the Favorite Food category and became worthy of being honored in a category all their own. Stephanie and I agreed that no matter what else is being served at the restaurants where these award winning dishes are served, we’d always go back just for them. These are our favorites of the favorites!

Bean Dip: El Potrero

Chorizo Dip: Nuevo Vallarta

Chile Relleno: El Potrero

Hot Salsa: El Laredo—chunky with habanero


Burrito Verde: El Potrero


Fish Tacos El Rio Ondo


This was a tough category to narrow down because so many of the places we visited, we’d definitely visit again. But these are the ten that we’d probably go back to the most. Maybe it’s for the service, or the overall quality of the food, or because they’re making good progress in establishing their businesses and we feel strongly about giving them our support.

El Potrero


El Adobe

El Especial

Los Ponchos

La Familia


Nuevo Vallarta

El Cozumel




As the summer months creep up on us and we take time away to recharge our batteries, I’ll be cutting back on the frequency of posts until September, but I won’t be cutting back on my chronicles of food and culture in Flint. I’m expecting to publish a post a week through the summer, and I’m expecting to cover new eateries that may open up in the coming months, old favorites that I’ve been meaning to get back to, and some of the many cultural events that take place in and around Flint, like the Flint Art Fair, Back to the Bricks, and the Crim Festival of Races. If you hear of exciting events in the area this summer, drop me a note and let me know so I can share them with everyone else.

And stay tuned for the next tour that Stephanie and I will embark on come September: the Flint Coney Island Restaurant Tour. We’ll be sharing what we learn about the history of the Coney Island, the original coney island hot dog recipe, the scandals that followed this recipe, and of course the many Coney Island restaurants in and around the Flint area. The Coney Island is a culinary fixture in our town and we intend to explore every nook and cranny of it and bring it to you on a weekly basis.

So, enjoy your summer, keep watching for new posts, and tell all your friends to join us in the fall for another great year of stories, critiques, and goofy asides about food and culture in our beloved Flint, Michigan.


  1. Ole! I'm looking forward to the coney tour.

  2. I was hoping that you would get around to a Coney Island tour. Maybe I will join you!

  3. Hmmm, I frequent LaFamilia Morales and El Especial but I'll have to venture out and try some others. El Especial has the best tamales, try those next time. Can't wait for the coney tour.