¡Que vivan los mercados mexicanos de Metro Detroit!

Who doesn't love a nicely stuffed burrito or a delicious plate of nachos? And, yet, while watered down American versions of these foods seem to be everywhere these days, it's always better to get your hands on the real stuff—authentic Mexican food.

Southeast Michigan's Mexican markets are a great place to do just this, whether you want to snag some cooking staples like beans, corn, avocados and chili peppers, pick up a hot plate of ready-to-eat tacos, or even grab a pack of imported Jumex juice from Mexico.

It shouldn't come as big surprise that Mexican food is a big deal in Metro Detroit; there's a decent-sized Mexican community here and an even larger Latino population. The U.S. Census' 2014 American Community Survey estimates there are roughly 116,000 Mexicans living in the tri-county (Wayne-Oakland-Macomb) area. That's out of a larger Hispanic population of around 3.8 million (Hispanic meaning people from Spanish-speaking countries or cultural groups).

What's more, Mexicans have deep roots in the region, with a history that stretches back at least to the early 20th century.

At first, those who came were attracted by work in the state's sugar beet fields. Many early Mexican immigrants were likely motivated by a desire to get away from political instability of the Mexican Revolution as well as extreme racial persecution in Texas. Manufacturing jobs, including those offered by Henry Ford who promised $5 a day in wages, were another incentive to come here.

Initially, these immigrants settled on the west side of Detroit's downtown; later they branched out to Corktown and Southwest Detroit. Eventually, a commercial district was established, which was first called "La Bagley" but is known today as Mexicantown. By 1929, there were 4,000 Mexicans in Detroit. That number nearly quadrupled to 15,000 by the end of the 1920s.

Due to racism fueled by the uncertainty of the Great Depression, however, the community was decimated during the 1930s when millions of Mexican across the United States were made to leave the country between 1930 and 1933 in a wave of deportations known as the Mexican Repatriation.

By 1938 Detroit's thriving Mexican community had been reduced to a scant 1,200 people.

Gradually, though, the Mexican community rebounded, due in part to government programs which brought migrant farm workers to the region. Over time, immigrants from other parts of Latin America have also come to Southeast Michigan. Although the nexus of the region's Hispanic community is still in Southwest Detroit, in recent years, sizable Latino enclaves have sprung up in places like Pontiac, Sterling Heights, and Wayne County's Downriver communities. And with them have come new Mexican and Hispanic-oriented markets in Detroit's suburbs.

We gladly sampled the offerings of three of them for you.

Westland: Dos Hermanos

If you're looking for a Mexican market in the Canton-Westland area, Dos Hermanos is your go-to place. It's housed in a three-building market-and-restaurant complex on Ford Road between Newburgh and Merriman in Westland.

The shop offers a nice selection of produce, meat and other foods geared towards a Hispanic audience. This includes canned goods, breads, sweets and spices, as well as produce like avocados, peppers and cactus. Meat is shipped in from Chicago every Thursday and cut daily by the shop's butcher. Customers can also purchase prepared foods like guacamole and various salsas.

"Everything is basically homemade," says Cesar Cervantes, who helps run the market. "We make everything from scratch, our own salsas, our own everything."

Dos Hermanos Market. Photo by Doug Coombe.


?On weekends as a special treat, the market also offers tamales, pork carnitas, tamales and barbacoa-style beef and lamb.

The restaurant, which sits at the building in a back of the complex, seats about 50 people and offers items like burritos, tacos, and enchiladas, as well as combination plates.

Dos Hermanos is owned by Cervantes' girlfriend, Jehili Arreola. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, she opened the establishment six years ago with her now ex-husband, after starting out with a food van. When they got divorced, Arreola kept the market and her ex started the non-affiliated Dos Hermanos restaurant in Ypsilanti.

The clientele is a mix of folks hailing from countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and even Cuba and non-Hispanic people the region. Cervantes says the local Hispanic community is small but has been growing since he moved there six years ago. Because Dos Hermanos is the only Hispanic-oriented market in the vicinity of Westland, he tells Metromode it regularly draws customers from nearby cities like Canton, Novi, Dearborn and Garden City.

Although they might come because it’s conveniently close, the market gives them plenty of reasons to return.

"We just take care of customers, trying to give the best service [and] fresh quality products," says Cervantes. “They keep coming back here because they find what they’re looking for.”

Pontiac: Carnival Market

Carnival Market in Pontiac is a little larger than Dos Hermanos. In fact, with ten aisles of food and groceries and over 10,000 imported items to choose from, it's a true supermarket.

"We are your typical grocery store," says co-owner Jason Ayiar. "So if you walk in, everything you need, we have. The only difference is all the stuff is Hispanic."

The biggest store of its kind in Oakland County, Carnival is modeled after the larger Hispanic foods markets that are common in Mexico and California.

The 20,000-square-foot market houses its own bakery, an extra large deli counter, and its own restaurant. Walking through, a customer will find a solid selection of produce (including a great assortment of fruits and peppers); freshly cut, marinated and packaged meats and poultry; dried chiles; fresh baked breads; pastries like Pasteles de Tres Leches (a sponge cake soaked with three different types of milk); and three aisles of imported items including cookies, sodas, dairy products, seasonings, canned goods from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

Produce at Carnival Market. photo by Doug Coombe.


Carnival also offers specially-prepared foods like 14 varieties of homemade salsas and 30 types of guisados (meat-and-sauce dishes) which are all made from scratch.

"The best way to generalize our specialty dishes is we do only pure authentic Mexican," Ayiar tells Metromode. "We don't vary from the recipes, we don't Americanize anything. The way it’s supposed to be, is the way it's done."

The restaurant has won numerous awards from Channel 4 and the Detroit Free Press for its menu which includes options like Chile Rellenos, shrimp burritos, Menudo (beef tripe soup) and grilled chile pepper. (If you're visiting downtown Detroit, you can also check out Carnival's walk-in restaurant Carnival Fresh Mex.)

The Pontiac market is owned by Ayiar in conjunction with his two brothers and father. A Chaldean family that previously owned groceries in Detroit, the Ayiars were inspired to open a Hispanic-focused supermarket by relatives in San Diego who operate two similar markets in California and allowed them to study their store operations. Carnival opened seven years ago; the first four years were rough, but through hard work, the Ayiars  are now on solid footing.

The customers who come to Carnival is about 75-80 percent Hispanic and 20-25 percent non-Hispanic. While Ayiar expects folks from Spanish-speaking countries to be familiar with stores like his, for others, he says, it's often a destination where customers can have an experience that's like a "mini-field trip."

"You're going to come in and see a bunch of things you normally don't see," he says. "Whoever decides to come to the store: come hungry and come ready to have some fun!”

Lincoln Park: Los Arcos

Lincoln Park's Los Arcos market makes it home in a building with a lot of memories for older local residents. Up until 2008, the 6,500-square-foot space was known as Chiarelli's, an Italian grocery store that first opened its doors in the 1920s.

These days its shelves are stocked with foods that cater to the Hispanic community: Mexican imports; produce like avocados and tomatillos and a variety of fruits; and fresh bread delivered daily by Chilango's bakery in Southwest Detroit. There's also a 36-foot deli counter full of meats with Mexican-style cuts.

Tacos at Los Arcos Market . Photo by Doug Coombe.For folks who do their shopping hungry (or just want to stop in), there's also a small 10-table restaurant. In the back of the store that's famous in the area for its Tuesday dollar taco specials.

Arturo Briones owns Los Arcos with his parents and brother Mario. He tells Metromode his family is still very involved in preparing the foods they sell.

"My mom still makes the tamales, the actual cooking," he says. "My dad cooks [specialty items] on the weekends: the carnitas, the barbacoa, the menudo."

Restaurant food like tacos is handled by cooks who make use of family recipes.

The elder Briones are originally from Jalisco Mexico, while Arturo and his brother were born in California. The family moved to the Detroit area in 1993. Briones and his father worked in the area as union laborers for several years, but during a rough spell when steady work was difficult to find, they got inspired to get into the food business.

"Construction was kind of down," he says. "It was kind of hard, keeping busy, so we just came up with the idea of opening up a grocery store. And we all got together and made it happen."  

The majority of Los Arcos customers are Latinos—Mexicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Hondurans—but the store also gets a fair number of non-Hispanics from Lincoln Park and other Downriver communities like Wyandotte, Grosse Ile and Woodhaven—including customers who remember the market's previous incarnation.

"We're just blessed because that building has so much history behind it," says Briones. "When the old customers from Chiarelli's started coming over, they started seeing the small family tradition...and they stayed around.”
 
This piece is part of an ongoing series on the diversity of Metro Detroit's ethnic markets, Read more in the series here.
 
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