When you dine at East Dearborn’s new M Cantina along Michigan Avenue, operator and chef Junior Merino wants you to experience the Mexico he knows.
He and his wife Heidi, who have been married for 15 years, are the faces behind the “Nuevo Latino” eatery with made-to-order foods and housemade sauces, including 21 different kinds of salsa.
“This is about showcasing my passion for food, the way I grew up and the real Mexico,” he says.
The menu features tortas (panini-pressed Mexican-style sandwiches), tacos, homemade sorbets and a variety of exotic fresh juice blends and coffee products. It’s mostly based on his hometown of Puebla in Central Mexico.
“Until this day my parents make everything from scratch, including cheese and creams,” he says. “That’s the kind of food I grew up with and when I came here one of the things I missed the most was the food. I never really adapted to packaged food. The personal touch and the quality and freshness gets lost. You can’t compare it to nature.”
Junior and Heidi have lived in the Aviation subdivision of Dearborn for nearly two years, in a home they fell in love with after looking at more than 600 houses when they were deciding to move from New York to somewhere more quiet and community-focused.
Junior has been cooking his whole life, starting as a child in Mexico working with his uncles at a bakery and steakhouse in New York, and eventually becoming the youngest and first Latino certified as a sommelier in the United States. He went on to become a mixologist and found his company, the Liquid Chef, Inc.
“I started from the bottom,” he says. “I didn’t speak one word of English; I had to learn a language and all the cuisines. I worked every position available in the restaurant business.”
While Junior is largely self-taught, Heidi is formally trained with lots of experience interning in New York kitchens. Her foundation, however, was learning from her husband's love of cooking.
“Before him, it was pretty much eat-to-survive; the typical American upbringing,” she says. “You cooked because you had to, not because it was a passion.”
That changed for her when Junior taught her a precious lesson, challenging her to make the same meal as him and compare one day.
“You need to love what you do because that personal touch is really important and he showed me that,” Heidi says. “We made the exact same dish but his was completely different because of the human factor.”
M Cantina’s backdrop is a Rustic brick wall with a reclaimed wood bar and marble countertops. Sparkling lights and exposed Edison bulbs give the place a glimmer, with fresh flowers and cacti along the counters.
Drinks are served in copper cups and dishes come on a slab of fresh Cedarwood to absorb the aroma. There’s a glass wall to see where Junior and Heidi are preparing the food.
The most popular item on the menu is the marinated shrimp, inspired by the Puerto Vallarta region of Mexico, where Junior says tastes are elegant and sophisticated.
The chicken tinga is a staple in Central Mexican cuisine, where it is boiled, shredded and mixed with a chipotle aioli and cooked with onions and tomatoes.
The meat in the duck carnitas is cooked French-style to pay tribute to Cinco de Mayo and the battle between the French and Mexican in Junior’s town of Puebla.
What makes their food stand out among any other Mexican restaurant are the fresh ingredients and exotic spice blends, he adds.
M Cantina is their vision for what the new wave Mexican food experience should encapsulate.
“Food is about an experience,” Junior says. “It’s about sharing. It’s about discovery.”
M Cantina is located at 13214 Michigan Ave. The hours are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.