When travelers cross the Ambassador Bridge into the United States, they land immediately in Mexicantown. I don’t know about you, but I find that a bit amusing. Can’t help but wonder if it has ever confused anyone to be greeted by Mexican flags when entering the U.S. Unfortunately, these days, there are less people crossing that border. Perhaps that makes it an ideal time for Michiganders to visit Mexicantown in Detroit.
The borders that define the iconic Southwest Detroit neighborhood are not necessarily clear. What is clear is that if you restrict yourself to just a couple of blocks, you will be missing out. Generally speaking, there is much to explore between the boundaries are Michigan Ave, W Fort St, Livernois Ave, and Rosa Parks Blvd. Here’s a great guide for your first, or next, visit to Mexicantown.
Start with Bagley Street
Whether you are a new visitor to the area, or returning, undoubtedly the nexus of Mexicantown is a road called Bagley. I’m specifically referring to a couple of blocks between 24th Street and the Fisher Service Drive. It’s the perfect place to start your visit to Mexicantown.
The second hardest thing to do when you arrive might just be finding a place to park. However, undoubtedly the biggest challenge will be deciding where to eat. Are you craving a succulent wet burrito from Los Galanes? What about those incredibly decadent enchiladas at Xochimilco? Oh wait, what about the tacos from Lupitas? Those are just a few of your many options. The great news is, you virtually can’t go wrong. Friendly people are waiting to serve you scrumptious food and delectable libations everywhere you turn. Pick one spot, or have drinks at one and dinner at another.
In between stops, make time to shop. No visit to Bagley Street would be complete without popping by Xochi’s Gifts. They specialize in imports from Mexico. You’ll find pottery, jewelry, ornaments, apparel, and décor.
Pick Up Some Tongs
While shopping on Bagley Street you have to stop in at La Gloria Bakery. You may not even need to look for the iconic pink building, as your nose may find it first. The delicious scent wafting from the building is only superseded by the tastiness of the treats inside. When you enter, they’ll present you with a tray and a pair of tongs. Then you can wander about, opening the glass doors, revealing shelves of fresh-baked goodness. You’ll find empanadas, orejas, cookies, donuts, and more. If you’re not too full from your Mexican feast, enjoy a nice hot churro. Most items run only about $.50 each, so fill your tray. They’ll pop them in a bag for you to take home.
Cross the Bridge
There was a time when most people would head to west Bagley Street and stay. Thereby missing out on the sights, sounds, and tastes on the other side of I-75. Now, thankfully, you can walk the bridge. No, not the Ambassador Bridge, though you’ll get some pretty unique views of it. Walk the Bagley Bridge over the freeway. It is the first cable-stayed pedestrian bridge in Michigan, and a bit thrilling to experience the traffic rolling beneath your feet. When you land on the other side, there is much more of Mexicantown to explore.
Visit the Granddaddy of them All
First, don’t miss this the restaurant that started it all. When I was a kid, most people referred to this entire neighborhood as Mexican Village, rather than Mexicantown. That’s because this staple of the area opened its doors back in 1957. Mexican Village was the only restaurant of its kind then, and has been going strong ever since. That’s a testament to the quality of the food and the superior service. It’s probably also due in no small part to Caldo Cancun. This must-try spicy chicken and rice soup is topped with diced avocado, cheese and corn chips. It’s served with flour tortillas, and will warm your heart as well as your tummy.
Eat a Botana
Whichever eatery you choose on a visit to Mexicantown, it’s highly likely that you’ll find a botana on the menu. The Spanish word botana essentially translates to snack in most places. Yet, here in Detroit it’s a very specific nacho-like dish. If you want the real deal, then go to Armando’s. What is commonly now known as the Detroit Botana was created there by Armando Galan.
While each establishment may put its own twist on the dish, the base is essentially the same. Take a layer of warm tortilla chips. Then add a mix of a refried beans and chorizo. Throw on some diced onions, avocado, green peppers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. The cheese is where it gets really interesting. It’s covered with hot, gooey Muenster cheese. Whether on Bagley, or elsewhere in the neighborhood, you haven’t really completed a visit to Mexicantown until you sink your teeth into a botana.
Head to Church
While strolling around this Mexican Village side of town, there are a few other stops you’ll want to make. One is Honeybee Market, which we’ll explore more in a bit. The other is the Basilica of St. Anne de Detroit. This Catholic parish was founded in 1701 and is the second oldest continuously operating parish in America. Father Gabriel Richard is interred at the church. Many consider him to be one of the most significant early settlers in Detroit.
The current cathedral was built in 1886. It is the 8th iteration of a church building to serve the parish. This version has impressive neo-Gothic architecture. There are stunning stained glass windows, impressive statues, and a dazzling ceiling. This is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city and definitely worth a visit. While, it began as a French parish, it has evolved as the neighborhood as changed. Now, most celebrations of Mass are said in Spanish, which can be a cool experience. Although there are also English celebrations, if you prefer.
Experience the Culture
Let’s face it, there’s never a bad time to visit Mexicantown. Whether you can afford a leisurely day wandering from Clark Park to St. Anne’s, or just squeeze in a quick lunch, it’s always worth it. That said, there are certain times of the year that are particularly unique. Join in on the parade and revelry for Cinco de Mayo in May. Experience a uniquely Mexican tradition with Dia de los Muertos in November. Enhance your Christmas season with Las Posadas at Ste. Anne in December. Alternatively, check the schedule to found out when to come for a show at community favorite, Matrix Theatre.
Go Mural Hunting
Art is a huge part of the Mexican culture, some of which is uniquely-tied to Detroit. Famed Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived in the city for a short time. Rivera created the famous industrial murals that adorn the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The ongoing passion for murals can be seen all over Mexicantown. The work you find often captures the spirit of those who have come before, as well as new generations helping to shape this neighborhood.
Take Food Home
Unquestionably, there are so many great eateries in Mexicantown that you’ll want to come back again and again. If that’s not a realistic option, then take some of that flavor home. You may even want to bring an empty cooler to fill with your finds. Pick up some of the best tamales you’ll ever have from Evie’s. Also, don’t leave town without some freshly-made tortillas.
Definitely leave time to visit the aforementioned Honeybee Market. There is an incredible selection of fresh produce. Especially inviting is the vast array of hot peppers. Similarly, you can find spices there that can be difficult to come by nearly anywhere else in the state.
Most importantly, as you explore these streets, keep in mind that virtually every business you come across is small and independently-owned. They are the heart of this modest community. The pandemic years have presented a huge struggle with the absence of tourism. So, when you visit Mexicantown, be sure to leave some cash behind to help them survive and thrive.
Soak in the Atmosphere
Any visit to Mexicantown is really about using all of your senses. Feel the pulse of the city beneath your feet as you cross the Bagley Bridge. Smell the savory spices and sweet baked goods in the air. Find comfort in cherished familiar tastes, but get adventurous and try flavorful new dishes. Look around at the exquisite detail, and vibrant colors. Let the sounds of merengue and salsa transport you from your ordinary life to destinations far away.
Many of us don’t have the time or resources to travel abroad. Not to mention the fact that the pandemic has made that a bit of a pipe dream for a while. Luckily, when you need to escape, a quick visit to Mexicantown awaits on any given day. Go alone. Bring a friend. Take the family. However you choose to explore, be sure to let your mind wander and your soul will soar.