Mexican restaurants ‘muy caliente’ in TC

TRAVERSE CITY – Judging by the number of independent Mexican restaurants in northern Michigan, one might say that area diners and south-of-the-border food go together like rice and beans.

But it's more than a hill of frijoles that's kept four local restaurateurs in business for a combined 65 years. If you ask them, it all boils down to community.

That, and good food of course.

"We've been fortunate because the town has supported us," said John Coscarelli, owner of Taco House on Garfield Avenue.

Coscarelli has seen a lot of changes in the Traverse City region in the past 26 years of running his "Americanized" Mexican restaurant, including a population increase that he believes can support the growing number of restaurants in the area.

"Everybody can have a slice of the pie," he said.

That's good news for Lyle Martell, manager of the newest independent Mexican restaurant to the area. Agave Mexican Grill on Garfield Avenue opened its doors earlier this year and has seen "an incredible amount of people," Martell said.

In addition to many Hispanics, Agave has already welcomed its share of local business owners, religious clergy and even a senator.

Miguel Osorio, owner of Taqueria Margarita on South Airport Road, also described an overwhelming response when he first opened his restaurant five years ago next door to his Mexican food and products store, Osorio El Mexicano.

The family originally began cooking in the store during the weekends to assess the viability of opening a new Mexican restaurant in the area. He said he was impressed with the crowd of patrons from the very first weekend.

"Wow, we saw a lot of people," Osorio said.

Nick Vasquez, manager of the family-owned Vasquez's Hacienda on U.S. 31 in Elk Rapids Township, said it takes year-round community support in order to survive in a "tourist town."

"People like to be here, they like the food," Vasquez said of the 33-year-old restaurant.

While it's true that the owners and operators of these restaurants attribute their success in part to community support, it's also the high-quality food and a family-oriented atmosphere that keep community members coming back.

Several of the restaurants count many family members among their staff, such as the Hacienda, where Vasquez said his aunt and mom do most of the cooking of the restaurant's family recipes.

And even though Taco House doesn't currently have any family members on staff, Coscarelli has employed some of the same people so long they just feel like family. He said the manager with the least amount of experience has been working for Taco House for 13 years.

Coscarelli cited the employees' longevity just after the high quality and consistency of his food-he hasn't changed any of the recipes since opening his doors 26 years ago-that has made Taco House a success.

"Customers like to come in and see the same faces," he said.

Taqueria employs Osorios' sister to serve up homemade family recipes rooted in the family's home state of Oaxaca, located in the south of Mexico. Other family employees include Osorio's nephew, brother and sometimes his niece. The Taqueria is even named for his daughter, Margarita.

From hand-mashed refried black beans to special dishes like menudo (hangover soup) and sauces like mole, Osorio said his food is homemade and high-quality, and that's the No. 1 reason why his restaurant is a success.

"We believe we're doing the best that we can and learning more and more," Osorio said.

Husband-and-wife team Javier and Dusty Rodriguez, owners of Agave, employ a sister and mom Maria, who admits she doesn't speak much English but makes up for it in enthusiasm.

"She does everything, she just goes everywhere," Martell said.

Maria said her family hails from the state of Michoacán, in the southwest part of Mexico, and among the family recipes the restaurant serves up, she's especially proud of her hand-made tamales.

"Everything here is homemade. Everything is authentic here," Martell said.

High-quality food is a mantra you'll hear again and again at these restaurants, as consistent as sombreros on the walls or Spanish-language music playing in the background. But as much as these independent Mexican eateries seem alike, their differences are as vast and colorful as the menus items they offer.

The Hacienda, for example, features an active dance floor, karaoke singing, a brand new bar with big-screen TVs and famous margaritas with homemade sour mix. Agave also has a TV bar and employs a mariachi group from time to time.

You won't find margaritas at the Taqueria or Taco House…Taqueria is a sit-down restaurant while Taco House is organized in quick-service style with a drive-through window.

As with any type of restaurant, these owners cite challenges ranging from keeping the business viable despite fluctuating expenses to building up a client base via word of mouth, but through it all, they exude endless optimism.

"I love the challenge," Osorio said. "I'm learning, and my goal, my vision, is to get better." BN