There are 34 authentic Mexican restaurants in the Lansing area, reflecting the increasing popularity of Mexican food in this region. Before El Azteco, the first Mexican restaurant in this area, established itself in 1976, people in Lansing had virtually no choices when they wanted “real” Mexican food. Now, as tacos and nachos and salsa have become the favorites of many people not of Hispanic origin, about eight percent of Lansing restaurants offer Mexican cuisine.
Pablo’s Old Town is one of the city’s most well known authentic Mexican restaurants, and Lansing residents of many ethnic backgrounds and countries come to enjoy the spicy Mexican flavors on the menu. “Everybody comes here: East Indians, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Spanish. Not only Lansing residents, but folks who live in Detroit also drive here to eat our food!” A server and cook at Pablo’s Old Town Lola Cruz proudly said. Pablo’s Old Town opened its doors on East Grand River Avenue in Old Town in 2005.
Before Pablo’s Old Town, there were only two or three Mexican restaurants said Lola Cruz. She said. “Now, we are much busier, and there are many more Mexican restaurants catering to people who enjoy Mexican food!”
Pablo’s Old Town tries to serve the Mexican foods of its home country. Besides avocados, pinto beans, chilies, corn, tomatillos, and tomatoes, which are Mexican restaurants’ well-known ingredients, Pablo’s Old Town uses more onions, black pepper, and cilantro than other restaurants to make its salsa. It also uses more cumin and garlic.
The salsa and cuisine served at Pablo’s is not as spicy as in other Mexican restaurants, because the style of food originates in Puebla, Mexico, where mild chilies are broadly used, as well as the very spicy ones such as habanero. The fresh, thin, and crispy tortilla chips are made by a Mexican company, El Miagro, and fried in Pablo’s kitchen every day. “Our cooks cannot speak English; however, they know how to make real, truly authentic Mexican food,” Cruz said. Pablo’s is also famous for its tortas, a Mexican sandwich made with fresh bread, avocado, onion, tomato, jalapeno, and shredded cheese.
El Azteco is the oldest Mexican restaurant in East Lansing that provides authentic Mexican food, based on the style of New Mexico in the U.S. and the northern areas of Mexico. Since El Aztecto opened forty years ago, it has become the classic Hispanic restaurant in this city. Its first location was in the basement of a building on M.A.C. Avenue, and people would wait in long lines, starting on M.A.C. all the way down to the basement, just to eat the authentic cuisine.
The current manager of El Azteco, Braxton Newman, said the food is spicier than at most of the other Mexican restaurants because they use chile verde sauce made with jalapeno chili peppers. El Azteco fries its chips and tortillas, which are delivered from its own factory every morning, and the soft tortilla and burrito shells are made according to the northern Mexican tradition. “We are still a local favorite, serving Lansing families and couples for 40 years,” Braxton said.
The most popular dishes are blue corn enchiladas, Topopo Salad and cheese dip. “My favorite is Topopo Salad. It’s layered with tortilla chips on the bottom, mounted with lettuce and other toppings, clear oil dressing, and peas. It is just out of this world,” said Christi Cross, who visits El Azteco once a month. “I live in the western part of Lansing and I try to come whenever I have an errand to do in this part of town.”
If you are a little more casual and need to grab something quick to eat, but want the food to be great Mexica, El Oasis would be your choice. The owner initially opened a food truck in the early 2000s in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to its present location on East Michigan Avenue in Lansing in 2005. El Oasis manager Ricardo Gutierrez used the Spanish term “antojitos” to describe the food. It means “little cravings.” “It refers to traditional Mexican dishes, mostly finger food,” he said. “El Oasis’ style of food is popular all over Mexico, but this style is more common in the country’s northeastern region.”
In Columbus, El Oasis’ typical customers were Mexican construction workers. “Now, here in Lansing, our food is very popular with college students and local residents.” Gutierrez says. Small burritos, gorditas, and the taco dinner are also among their customers’ favorites.
The typical customers at Los Tres Amigos are also students. Los Tres Amigos offers a diverse menu and flavors at reasonable prices. Los Tres Amigos’ East Lansing manager said it offers the unique flavors of Nayarit in Mexico, where the chile and salsa are famous. One customer posted on her Facebook page that the Los Tres Amigos salsa “has a freshly made, amazing taste, and the perfect flavors.” The restaurant offers a large menu, including cheese dip, taco salad, and various quesadillas, enchiladas, and fajitas.
As the popularity of Mexican food has increased in the United States and more people have become familiar with the specific tastes, the industry’s contribution to the economy has grown. Food service data and analytics firm CHD expert said there are more than 54,000 Mexican restaurants in the United States. The number of Mexican restaurants has now surpassed the hamburger restaurant market, which was 50,000 in 2014. People spend more than $39 billion at Mexican restaurants each year, and there are approximately 400,000 workers in the Hispanic food and beverage industry. The market for Mexican foods in the United States in 2012 was $8.2 billion, and is expected to grow to $10.8 billion by 2017.
With their popularity continuing to increase, local Mexican restaurant owners in Lansing are considering expansions. Pablo’s Old Town wants to open a second restaurant in Reo Town, Lansing. El Azteco has already opened its second location, on Saginaw Street in Lansing. Los Tres Amigos expanded by franchising, with 14 locations under its umbrella since its first restaurant opened in 2005.
Mexican food is also a favorite among many Asian people here in America. “This is because Mexican food is spicy, cooked with various seasonings and sauces, which is also the style of traditional Asian foods. It is not greasy, either,” said Michgan State student Hyun Jin,.
“Chinese customers love tacos and quesadillas made with pork. That’s because Asian palates also enjoy cuisine made with pork,” Lola, of Pablo’s Old Town, said. Pablo’s sees many Korean, she said.