Mexicantown is a place where vibrantly colored buildings, decorated with even brighter murals and hand-painted signs, dot the main thoroughfares of Bagley and Vernor Streets. One might guess there are more restaurants per square foot than any other neighborhood in Detroit -- but the smell of fresh tortillas and baked goods floating down the street provide the only proof. On any given day, the sounds of salsa or merenge come from Discoteca La Rancherita, and in the summer, people sit outside at restaurants -- like the side patio at Los Galanes, where dangling plastic chili peppers and a live musician set a festive mood -- sipping the best margaritas the city has to offer.
Nebulous are the borders of Mexicantown -- tucked into the greater neighborhood known as Southwest Detroit. Some say it begins at the old Train Station and ends at Clark Park. Others passionately insist it includes Clark Park. More than a few people expand its spread all the way to Livernois. The executive director of Bagley Housing, Vince Murray, believes the term Mexicantown is too limited. He suggests that the neighborhood might even refer to the reaches of Springwells Avenue. Perhaps even more important to defining the neighborhood, though, are its enviously unique traits and robust character, attracting visitors, as well as residents, from all over the state and even Canada.
Beyond the quesadilla
There was a rumor some years ago about the invasion of a Chi Chi's into Mexicantown. Of course, it never happened and the impressive cluster of Mexican restaurants has maintained its authenticity. Many visitors have their favorite restaurant, and keep coming back to their standby. But be a little adventurous and you'll learn there are so many to choose from (so many reasons to keep coming back), and each spot is known by the locals for a distinctive reason -- from the buffet with the freshest veggies (Los Galanes) to the "best tamales in the state of Michigan" (Evie’s Tamale's, according to more than a few dedicated customers).
El Comal, which has recently expanded its space and added a performance area, attracts people with a taste for Central American cuisine. Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Colombian favorites like pepusas served with fried plantains give people options beyond Mexican standards.
Nuestra Familia brings a variety of yummy salsas to each table with sliced cucumbers, radishes and tortilla chips, and it's rumored that the owner, Jorge, will whip up a spicy cactus dish that’s not on the menu, if you ask nicely.
Lunchtime is a madhouse at Lupita’s. So is dinnertime. And 10:30 p.m., when late-night noshers come in just before closing time. But who can blame them? Lupita's serves up seriously tasty tacos with chicken, pork, steak or even tongue, topped with onions and cilantro, for $1 each.
Then there’s the restaurant that started it all. You'll start seeing signs advertising Mexican Village as soon as you arrive in the vicinity: "a very fine place to dine" they read, modestly for such a big sign. The oldest restaurant in Mexicantown, this Bagley Street institution has grown into a veritable behemoth during the last 50 years. Decked out in plush red carpet and white stucco walls, several expansions have created six separate dining rooms downstairs and a funky, Mexican-retro lounge-cum-waiting area and a for-rent event room upstairs. David Orlowski’s fine art mural of the history of Mexico presides in the main dining area, and the menu is extensive. Locals rave about the Caldo Can-Cun, a spicey chicken rice soup topped with fresh avocado -- hold the cheese, which is for American taste buds.
Strolling and shopping
Mexicantown residents boast about their shopping distict, but visitors also enjoy the merch -- be it fresh, pre-peeled prickly pear or a Lady of the Guadalupe statue.
No place in Detroit brings a middle-age man with a sweet tooth to his knees like La Gloria bakery. After being smacked in the face (in a good way) by the sugary smell of fresh pastries, grab a plastic tray and a set of tongs and go about your business. The serve-yourself, wall-length cabinets are filled with a drool-worthy selection of cookies, breads, empanadas, orejas (ears), croissants, cupcakes, cookies, biscuits, churros and donuts -- each for about 50 cents a pop. A refrigerated glass case displays cakes (like tres leches), and a shelf of day-old breads offers discounts off to the side.
Women in the know rave about the Mexicantown spot where they can buy Kiotis -- a skin care line made in Paris, sold in Mexico but hard to find in the United States. Algo Especial, which means Something Special, sells a sundry of cleaning supplies, foodstuffs, magazines, cards, housewares, CDs and bagged herbs. If you’re looking for authentic Mexican handicrafts and apparel, check out Xochi's Gift Shop, which is packed tight with ceramic trinkets, candles, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, hand-painted platters and the like.
Honeybee La Comena is where locals have been going for their meats and fresh veggies for the past 50 years. They stock finds like fresh cactus and mangoes, dried spices and a killer family-recipe salsa. The best part: it's expanding by four times the square footage this summer, with plans to add more meat to their meat counter, prepared hot food items for take-out and more range in their packaged goods
Explore the culture
From the working tortilla factories to the murals representing Mexican working-class struggle, there’s culture everywhere you look in Mexicantown.
An adorable purple fixture on Bagley, the Matrix Theatre has been putting on original plays and puppet shows since 1991. An integral part of the neighborhood arts community, the theater company makes an effort to represent issues, playwrights and performers of the Southwestern Detroit neighborhoods.
Down the street, Bagley Housing, known foremost for its broad housing initiatives, also has a small but active art gallery inside its maize-colored home, marked by the eye-catching bouquet of white metal calla lilies made by the adjoining metalwork shop, Disenos. Like the Matrix Theater, the gallery was created to showcase work from within the community. Local artists -- Jorge Torres Manrique and Mary Herbeck -- have held court, as well as nationally recognized artist Nora Chopa Mendoza.
Mexicantown boasts the most culturally rich -- and many swear, most fun -- festivals in the city. Mark your calendars and don’t miss Cinco de Mayo, Day of the Dead, Unity in the Community and Ste. Anne Posada.
Set aside an afternoon for touring public art; the neighborhood is full of it, and much of it can be credited to local artist Vito Valdez. His big, green fish sculpture, at eastern border of Mexicantown on Vernor, is symbolic of the land that was once pure and clean, and a life-sized metal sculpture of a dog mowing the lawn sits in the gazebo behind the BHA. His mural work includes the restoration of City Spirits, on the corner of Bagley and 24th. On the other side of Bagley another building bears his handiwork: the mural Cornfields, portraying the field workers lining up along the rows of corn under a beaming sun and glow of the moon.
Act like a tourist in Europe, and make the effort to see one of the most historic and stunning churches in the Midwest, Ste. Anne's. The magnificent Gothic Revival structure was built in 1886, making it the eighth home of the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the nation. In addition to displaying the oldest stained glass in the city, it's also home to the remains of cherished local hero Father Gabriel Richard.
For more information about Mexicantown visit the Model D
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Directions to Mexicantown
From the East:
Take I-94 West and merge onto I-96 East/Jefferies Fwy via exit 213B toward Canada. Then take the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo and continue to exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the North:
Take I-75 South and merge onto I-94 West via exit 53B toward Chicago, then merge onto I-96 East/Jefferies Fwy via exit 213B toward Canada. Then take the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo and continue to exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the West:
Take I-96 East to the I-75 South/I-96 South exit toward Toledo. Take exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
From the South:
Take I-94 East toward Detroit and merge onto exit 213B for I-96 East/ Jefferies Fwy toward Canada. Take exit 47B toward Bridge to Canada/Porter St. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn right onto 23rd St and continue to either Bagely St or W Vernor Hwy.
Take I-75 North toward Detroit and continue to exit 47A toward M-3/Clark Ave. Stay straight to go onto West Fisher Fwy, then turn left onto Clark St and turn right to W Vernor Hwy. Either stay straight on W Vernor or turn right onto Hubbard then left onto Bagely.
Bagley Housing Art Gallery
An idol outside El Zocalo
Sweets at La Gloria Bakery
Cowboy hats at Xochi's Gift Shop
The Matrix Theatre
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger