If there's one prevailing stereotype about Mexican cuisine in the United States, it's the notion that the food of our southern neighbors is and should always be cheap. The more inexpensive it is, the thinking goes, the greater its perceived "authenticity."
Not only is it a subtly racist pigeonhole, it's also inaccurate. The country is host to plenty of fine-dining restaurants, particularly in Mexico City, where critically lauded chefs serve meticulously plated tasting menus to well-heeled diners from all over the world.
With aims of shattering the "cheap" stereotype once and for all, a noted local chef of Mexican descent has lobbed an opulent, tortilla-encased volley from his unlikely Dearborn restaurant known for its halal tacos and tortas.
Introducing: the $60 taco.
Available at M Cantina only by call-ahead order in servings of three ($180), the taco is a study in sumptuous ingredients: seared American Wagyu beef, a knob of Hudson Valley foie gras, pearls of Golden Osetra caviar and shaved black truffles. It's topped with leaves of the succulent ice plant and served with a side of Hawaiian salt, smoky chile morita sauce and roasted grasshoppers for crunch.
“I was thinking I wanted to do something different, something unique, something people can discover the diversity of Mexico and Mexican cuisine at a different level — at a level a lot of people haven’t seen unless they’ve traveled to New York or Mexico City, where you can find some of these restaurants," says M Cantina chef-operator Junior Merino.
Metro Detroit has seen a succession of exorbitant, headline-grabbing menu items in the past few years. There was the short-lived but seemingly successful $55 burger served at the Rugby Grille in Birmingham. And plenty of eyes rolled when the Bad Luck Bar opened in late 2016 with an $80 cocktail; detractors said there wasn't enough of a market in Detroit to support the price tag. But the drink became so popular the bar couldn't stock its ingredients fast enough and eventually replaced it with a $120 option instead.
So the $60 taco isn't without precedent here. Only this time the mission is greater than just the price tag.
Before Merino opened the halal Nuevo Latino street food restaurant on Michigan Avenue last year, he was a famed mixologist in New York City known as the Liquid Chef and an official ambassador of Mexican gastronomy and tourism who created the first national cocktail of Mexico.
And while life in Michigan is slower paced and perhaps a little less glamorous than the one he left behind in the Big Apple, Merino's culinary diplomacy streak remains.
“There’s a movement right now in California and New York and some other big cities where all the chefs that do Mexican cuisine are … pushing to showcase real Mexican food that is handcrafted and takes hours to cook," he says. "Everything we do here takes anywhere from eight hours to 18 hours. Making mole takes a full day. That’s why real Mexican high-end cuisine is always going to be expensive. It’s almost impossible to do it cheap, unless you buy cheap ingredients."
Merino says he's not making any money from his pricey tacos — he's serving them essentially at cost to test the market's appetite for opulence.
"We’re not trying to get every single person," he explains. "We’re trying to get the people that really care about what they eat, that care about the experience that they have, that care about the quality.”
If nothing else, it makes M Cantina's chicken tacos — at $3 a piece — seem like a steal.
M Cantina: 13214 Michigan, Dearborn. 313-399-9117 and facebook.com/mcantina13214.
Contact Mark Kurlyandchik: 313-222-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mkurlyandchik and Instagram: curlyhandshake.