GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As restaurants across West Michigan celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, two Mexican chefs say they’re working to preserve ancient and familial traditions.
MeXo is located on Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids. The restaurant puts a modern twist on pre-Hispanic dishes made by ancient Aztec and Mayan groups.
“Corn is one of the basics of pre-Hispanic cuisine,” said chef Oscar Moreno as he pointed to three different varieties of corn they serve. “It’s the mission of the restaurant to show you and rescue a lot of those ingredients that were used in pre-Hispanic times.”
The restaurant currently offers a full tequila bar, a variety of moles and several kinds of tacos. Moreno says he grows fresh herbs inside the restaurant and hand makes tortillas for dishes. He says because most pre-Hispanic cuisine did not include dairy, MeXo’s menu doesn’t include much either.
Moreno says one of the most interesting dishes they serve is called rock soup. He says it was traditionally prepared by the men of the family.
“The men would go and fish for whatever they could find in the river, shrimp or whatever fish he can get,” Moreno said.
Moreno says in his modern take, he uses shrimp, fresh herbs and broth. The dish is then served to the customer chilled before the waiter drops a 500-degree rock into the bowl to cook the soup, mimicking a traditional cooking method.
“Basically, everything is raw, and he will collect river rocks over the fire and when the kids and the family is ready to eat, he will drop the rock and cook the soup and then lunch is ready,” said Moreno.
Moreno said it’s important to preserve this history.
“Not only for the cultural side but for the health benefits,” Moreno said.
On Grand Rapids’ West Side, the staff at El Granjero says their recipes come from previous generations of family.
“We are from Mexico City. I also lived in Baja California before coming to Grand Rapids in 2005 and when a neighbor took us to a restaurant, because we missed Mexican food, it was somewhere that wasn’t authentic,” said Paola Mendivil, vice president of catering at El Granjero and the daughter of the restaurant’s owner.
Mendivil says when the family moved to Michigan, her mother Mercedes López began working at El Ganadero on Bridge Street. When López learned that the restaurant would be closing for good, she took over in 2007 and renamed the restaurant El Granjero.
“My mother had very humble beginnings. When she didn’t continue her education and got married young and had children young, when it came time to find a job, she found it at a restaurant and she started washing dishes,” said Mendivil.
El Granjero now serves recipes passed down through generations including a dish called enfrijoladas, which is like an enchilada but is topped with a black bean-based sauce, chorizo and queso fresco.
With each meal, Mendivil says she hopes the community feels like they’re a part of their family.
“I think in our culture we love to eat; we love food. We have this passion for always sharing a meal together and that brings people together,” said Mendivil.