The Best Mexican Restaurant in America


My friend Raymond insists that the best cheeseburger in New York is found at the Forest Diner in Queens, two blocks from where he grew up. He also insists that the best pizza in New York is—miraculously—on the same block. It's like Calvin Trillin said: "Any man who does not think that the best hamburger in the world is served in his hometown is a sissy."

La Fiesta Mexicana

Sometimes the best food is what you grew up with, what formed your impression of that food in the first place. And so even though I know I'm probably not right, I'm convinced that the best Mexican restaurant in America is in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

I don't recall how I ended up at La Fiesta Mexicana, but I remember my first meal there perfectly. Until that day, I thought Mexican cuisine was a list of different-sized tortillas and a choice of beef, chicken, or cheese. If pressed, I probably would have said that my favorite Mexican restaurant had a talking dog in its commercials. So I read La Fiesta's menu with interest, intrigued by its pork stews and regional enchiladas. My friend got potato tacos and, entranced by its unfamiliarity, I ordered the nopales con mole, wondering, just for a moment, if I'd just asked for some kind of rodent.

They brought out the customary pile of chips and salsa, only the chips were delicate, shatteringly crisp, and the salsa thin, liquid, not at all like the jar of chunky Tostitos that my roommate and I discerningly selected over the generic supermarket brand. It was smoky, complex, with a foundation of garlic and slow-building heat. There was something going on here.

The tacos showed the simple pleasure of sautéed potatoes in a shell made of those same fried tortillas, juiced up with a light, herbal tomato sauce—not a shred of orange cheese in sight. I have to admit that I was unprepared for my first taste of mole, so cactus paddles smothered in that brown-black sauce of chocolate, seeds, and toasted chilies sort of freaked me out. But I ended up making a meal of house-made tortillas stuffed with rice and impossibly deep, rich refried beans, splashed all over with that incredible salsa.

That was nine years ago, my last one living in Michigan. I spent that year wisely, going to La Fiesta probably more than 20 times, eating my way through the menu, mowing down plates of skirt steak, chilies stuffed with meat and nuts, and so many pork stews that the servers eventually started calling me "Chico de Puerco."

It wasn't always amazing. Sometimes the tamales came out a little dry, sometimes the mole came out a little bitter, sometimes that herby tomato sauce came out a little watery. But none of this ever mattered, not where I first learned to eat this food in the first place, not where I first became a culinary Mexiphile.

In town the other day for the first time in a couple of years, I cajoled a bunch of friends to eat there with me. They know me to be a man of enthusiasms, though I'm not sure they could quite understand why I wanted to squeeze six in a rented econobox for the 20-minute drive to Ypsi. But then Ariel took a bite of a chip and lit up at its lightness. Hannah had a taste of the salsa and re-situated the bowl to sit directly in front of her. And it was on.

La Fiesta Mexicana 529 W. Cross St., Ypsilanti, MI (734-483-1666)

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