Mexicantown in Detroit has bugged me for a while. Out of all the restaurantes I’ve visited in Mexicantown, I’ve never once left feeling like I’ve discovered the heart of the culinary scene there. That, I suspect, lies hidden in la casas, where women take simple ingredients from the local supermercado and make magical meals (note: random italicized Spanish words can add an air of sophistication to any article).
Since I’ve yet to be invited over anyone’s house in Mexicantown, unfortunately, I’ve had to make do with whatever scraps of greatness are mercifully tossed off by the cocineros to the starving and very much adoring public. My last trip to Mexicantown took me to Armando’s near the lovely Clark Park, one of the few areas of Detroit that still looks like Detroit. Y’know, streets packed with two-story homes and little shops and eateries with parking in back. I was hopeful. I believed.
Right away, the autographed photos of 1984 World Series champion Detroit Tigers on the dining room wall caught my eye. From Sparky Anderson to Aurelio López and Alan Trammel, each Tiger had personally addressed a little something “to Armando’s” in black marker. Those guys are like gods in Detroit, and here they are backing Armando’s! Wow. That at least says something.
Except for a few questionable appetizers (Buffalo wings?), the menu was promising, too, as were the authentically shot springs in my booth and dim lights. This had to be the real deal, right?They even had tortas, “sandwiches typically found at stands throughout Mexico.” Yes. Finally. Just to see how they’d pull it off, I ordered a tortas vegetariana. I also ordered a Cuban sandwich for protein and to maintain the universe’s delicate karmic balance – yin and yang, light and dark, meats and vegetables.
The tortas vegetariana came on a huge telera roll, a distant cousin of the baguette. Soft but crunchy, sweet but not too sweet, the telera made a nice bed for the refried beans and melted white cheese. Stuffed with onions, lettuce, tomato, and avocado, the tortas vegetariana was like that dream you might’ve had while passed out in a back alley at 3 AM, the fixings for a nacho supreme on the Mexican equivalent of a hamburger bun. Genius, right? The only problem was that the bottom bun got so soggy that by the end, if I lifted the sandwich it fell apart. I kinda expect street-style food to be sloppy, though, so it was an easily forgiven shortcoming.
Now, the Cuban sandwich was a different story. This was a clearly calculated sandwich on grilled Cuban bread – a thin, porous bread with a soul of dough and lard/shortening. The tidy layers of sliced country ham, pork tenderloin, and Swiss dominated the flavor landscape, with mustard and pickles adding an occasionally tangy, sour undertone to offset the sweetness. I could imagine Fidel Castro making this for a snack from his fridge before flying out to deal with the United Nations again. It was good comfort food.
But did either sandwich truly bring me closer to the heart of Mexicantown? I’m not sure. The quest for El Dorado, then, must go on – somewhere, I know, that mythical golden taco stand awaits.