Friday, May 7, 2010

Living La Vida Lupe

Cinco de Mayo is my favorite holiday because, aside from celebrating Mexico beating up on the French for trying to forcefully immigrate to their country en masse, it’s also an American celebration of Mexican culture. In my world, that means paying homage to the National Drink of Mexico: The Margarita. I like mine frozen, so buying a smoothie machine a few years ago so I could make Cuervo Gold Margaritas myself and thus celebrate all year long turned out to be a smart move.

And really, how can one stage a proper celebration of Cinco de Mayo without good Mexican cuisine?

Stephanie and I have been celebrating Mexican food and culture in Flint for the last eight months by having lunch at locally owned Mexican restaurants. We’ll continue to scout out new eateries and go back again and again to our favorite places, but we brought our 2009-2010 Flint Mexican Restaurant Tour to an official end Wednesday by having lunch at the newly opened Lupe’s on Elms Road.

And what an interesting history Lupe’s has. If you remember from a few posts ago, I learned of the impending opening of Lupe’s from Cookie, who owns Laredo’s, who once owned Cookie’s Taco House with her mother, but who left the business to become a hairstylist, but then came back to the business to open Laredo’s, while her mother and brother still own Cookie’s Taco house, and other family members own and operate El Rio Ondo, Al Azteca, La Familia Morales, El Especial, and few more I can’t remember off the top of my head.

Lupe’s, which opened a week ago, began as Alejandro’s in the same building that it occupies now. Alejandro’s, which is the other restaurant owned by Cookie’s family, moved from its current location, to the strip mall next door on Elms Road. Because of a dispute with the owner of the strip mall building (that’s as much as I know), Alejandro’s closed its doors recently, moved back to its original building just to the south of the strip mall, and re-opened as Lupe’s.

It’s been seven months since we ate at Alejandro’s, but walking into Lupe's for the first time, I see some familiar themes. The dining room, for example, is as beautifully and tastefully designed as Alejandro’s. With far fewer tables and a smaller space, Lupe’s feels like an upscale Mexican Bistro. (Considering Bistro is a French concept, and considering Mexico defeated the French in order to give Americans a Mexican holiday to celebrate—with tequila—it’s no surprise that Mexican restaurants are not usually referred to as Bistros.) My friend Kali reminded me, in fact, that the preferred term for Mexican restaurants is Cantina, which is actually Italian in its origin.

When I think of cantinas, I also think of happy, cheesy music. Mariachi Band stuff. I remember having dinner at an outdoor Mexican Cantina in San Diego many years ago with a bunch of my graduate school friends. Somebody at our table offered my best friend, Jake, and me forty bucks to slow dance with each other, tableside and topless, while the Mariachi Band played behind us. That’s a lot of money for a poor graduate student. We did it of course and used the money to buy more pitchers of the same margaritas that gave us guts enough to take the challenge in the first place.

But, once again, I digress.

Lupe’s dining room is painted that Southwest orange color, and each of the eight or so tables is adorned with a different colored table cloth, all from the primary, rainbow colors. A bar with six high-legged chairs separates the dining room from the kitchen, which you can peer into an watch the tortillas and taco shells being made from scratch. The smells wafting through the dining room are enough to kick your salivary glands and taste buds into high gear. What I like most, though, about the dining room ambiance is the conservative application of wall art. The number of pieces is minimal, and they don’t call attention to themselves like the placemat-as-billboard-announcing-the-daily-specials variety I’ve seen in far too many other restaurants.

The chips and salsa were also a familiar site, and taste, for me. The chips really caught my eye because, fresh from the fryer, they glistened with residual coat of hot oil. In the right light, they were almost angelic. Shiny and pale, set against the bold red house salsa, these babies were almost too good eat. But we managed. The flavor of the house salsa was as bold as its color, but it suffered a huge setback for me because it was laced with an unusually high concentration of ground black pepper. This made me unhappy at Alejandro’s and unfortunately it hasn’t changed at Lupe’s.

Our request for the hot salsa brought an interesting response from our waitress. She brought a small bowl of fresh minced jalapeno peppers and directed us to dump them into our dish of house salsa, which would apparently turn it magically into the house hot salsa. And it did. It also reigned in the overbearing black pepper taste with its slightly sweet, differently hot balance.

Over time, we’ve become leery of ordering queso dips because they’ve been so wildly inconsistent and often horrid. Today, though, we were treated to a delightfully simple, almost elegant queso that brought great pleasure to our palettes. It had a festive orange hue to it, not the glowing neon characteristic of its ball park nacho cheese cousin. This version didn’t coagulate into a half-set cement glob with a freakish orange sheen. Lupe’s queso had a smooth, silky taste to it, which is what happens when you set the can opener aside and make this dip with real cheese.

I’m of the mind that if something works and it’s good, then don’t change it. That’s about how Stephanie and I felt about our entrees. Our food was reminiscent of our Alejandro’s meals last fall. We liked it then, and we like it just as well, if not more, at Lupe’s. I traded in my usual chimichanga platter for Lupe’s golden taco plate, three hand made flour shells, lightly deep fried and filled with ground beef, lettuce, and pico de gallo. Stephanie went for the combo platter, which was also quite good, though the tamale was just ok. The beans were pretty typical, but their Mexican Rice got a snappy upgrade that we both rated quite highly. This version had freshly sautéed peppers and onions mixed in, which gave it a nice texture and a nice flavor.

This family certainly knows how to offer a full Mexican dining experience, and Lupe’s, of all the restaurants owned by the Cookie clan, leads the way by paying close attention to its quality of food, ambiance and décor, and quality of service. The result for customers like us is a happy relaxed experience worth celebrating.

7 comments:

  1. If only the local Mexican places would healthify their food by taking out the lard, I would be in bean heaven. Alas, I have to drive to the Detroit area to get my fix. Or my own kitchen.

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  2. What, no pic of you and Jake dancing?! :)

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  3. I've completely enjoyed your mexican restaurant reviews and am sad they will be ending! Thanks for your wonderful posts...I will be going to places you recommend for my love of mexican food! Have you decided on a new theme for your lunches w/ Stephanie? THANKS AGAIN!! LOVE YOUR WRITING STYLE!!

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  4. Rick and I adore Lupe's (and Alejandro's before). It's conveniently just down the road from us. I didn't know they had a chimi, though! I'll have to look more closely at the menu. The chips and salsa are tasty, but it's a bummer you have to pay for them when ordering take out. Plus, we do think the prices are a bit high. But overall, appetizing mexican fare.

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  5. I'm still not sold on Alejandro's/Lupe's. The salsa is like marinara sauce.

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  6. I'm also not sold! I do love the chips and salsa! That is about it! The meat needs some flavor or something! I will continue to get my chips and salsa as take out.......once the actual food gets better I may get that as well!

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  7. I'd rather drive an extra 10 minutes and get Qdoba, just sayin ..

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