Mi Pueblo defies the Taco Bell-ification of Mexican cuisine

When Adrian Ortega relocated to Cleveland from Chicago (for a girl, naturally), he discovered that it was impossible to enjoy the foods he grew up eating in the Mexican state of Michoacán. "We didn't have a place to shop for the products we needed to cook them," explains Ortega. "We had to drive to Detroit or Chicago to find them."

Out of that frustration came the idea to open a food market that catered specifically to the region's burgeoning Hispanic population. Like countless similar operations in Chicago, the grocery would be paired with a casual Mexican restaurant. Mi Pueblo Mercado and Taqueria opened in 1995, and it continues to be the one of the best sources for Mexican ingredients — not to mentions tacos, tortas and burritos.

Mexican home cooks flock to the market for its extensive selection of tortillas, tostadas, chiles and spices. Coolers overflow with fresh cheeses, sausages, peppers and hard-to-find produce like tamarind, guava and cactus. A butcher counter provides the special cuts of beef and pork that are required to whip up staples like carne asada and carnitas. Shoppers can also pick up Mexican fruit juices, beer and freshly fried pork rinds.

If you'd like to experience what a real taco tastes like, walk next door to the taqueria. Unlike what we have grown accustomed to, these gems are sparsely filled and judiciously topped. Fillings include zesty chorizo, tender chicken, braised pork and simmered beef tongue ($1.65 each). The flavorful meats are spooned onto a pair of warm, soft corn tortillas and dressed with a smattering of onion and cilantro. Diners add their own fresh lime, pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa.

"Here, everybody eats their tacos with cheese, tomato, lettuce and sour cream," says Ortega. "That's just not right. Ours come as close as possible to being home."

If you fancy all those fixings, skip the tacos in favor of a torta ($4.50). These Mexican-style sandwiches come on a soft bun and are loaded with meat, veggies, avocado, beans and cheese. The filling choices are the same as those served in the tacos.

For those who prefer more substantial Mexican entrées, the taqueria more than provides. In the chile rellenos ($12.95), a pair of poblano peppers are stuffed with Chihuahua cheese, topped with mild red sauce, and served with seasoned rice and refried beans. Breakfast fans are always looking for places that serve all day. Mi Pueblo dishes up huevos rancheros ($5.95), plus a half-dozen other egg-based items, around the clock.

Three years after opening the original Mi Pueblo, ownership added an east-side location to meet the growing demand for authentic Mexican fare from non-Hispanic diners. While every bit as casual as the West Side taqueria, the Euclid Avenue spot offered a more extensive menu that delved deeper into the cuisine. So, in addition to the tacos and burritos, diners were introduced to rarely seen specialties like chicken mole, snapper Veracruz and tripe soup.

It wasn't long before folks were bypassing their beloved fajitas in favor of enchiladas suizas ($11.95), chicken-stuffed corn tortillas covered not with cheese, but rather a tart tomatillo sauce. Mole poblano is an acquired taste, to say the least. But that didn't stop customers from lapping up the bitter black sauce on everything from grilled chicken ($12.95) to beef enchiladas ($12.95). The truly adventurous opted for the lomo des res ($12.95), thinly sliced steak drowning in a fiery red sauce starring chile de arbol. Most entrées are served with warm tortillas to scoop up meat and sauce.

While many of those items are still available, there presently is a shift away from the exotic. A larger percentage of the east-side clientele is now college students, who tend to favor cheap over adventurous. Prices, portions and selections are being scaled back a bit to better address current trends.

Meanwhile, the west-side location continues to expand to meet the desires of its loyal Hispanic following. What started out merely as a glorified street-food vendor has blossomed into a popular family restaurant. Seating has doubled to 100, and the menu has grown to include many of the same items that were shed by the Euclid Avenue locale. Menudo, a time-intensive spicy tripe soup that had been available at both locations, is now served only out west. Same for pozole, a hearty pork and hominy stew.

Regardless which location they choose, diners know they can look forward to a bottomless basket of fried tortillas, excellent red and green salsa, and a plate of the addictive pickled carrots and jalapenos. Where they go from there will depend equally on one's location, preference and sense of adventure.



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