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Latin American culture shines through Ann Arbor's authentic cuisine

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By John Lynch, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 24, 2013

Coined by the early 19th-century poet John Keats, the phrase “negative capability” has come to describe the ability to hold two contrasting ideas in the mind at once. When it comes to Latin American food, I’d like to think that I possess a certain negative capability.

In that sense, I am both a fan of the burritos at Chipotle and a relatively frequent customer of Xochimilco Restaurant, an authentic Mexican restaurant in downtown Detroit. I can eat a quesadilla at Pancheros on South University and still enjoy the quesadillas of any genuine Latin American restaurant. And I do, in fact, crave the occasional Doritos Locos Taco from Taco Bell (gasp!) despite being acutely aware that what lies within that Doritos shell could very well be the death of me.

So, it is with this negative capability and an insatiable hunger that I set out to visit two of Ann Arbor’s own authentic Latin American restaurants: Pilar’s Tamales — famous for, well, its tamales and Salvadoran cuisine — and Tmaz Taqueria — a taco place with a versatile menu of Mexican foods. Open to expanding my horizons and awakening my taste buds, I was enthusiastic about the opportunity to visit these establishments, meet their owners and, of course, try some delicious food.

When I arrived at Pilar’s Tamales, which is located in a small plaza a bit of a jaunt down West Liberty away from downtown, I parked in one of the few spaces located in front of the building and walked toward the restaurant’s door, completely unaware of what to expect as I entered.

Opening the door, I was immediately enveloped in color and sound. The walls are painted with sharp shades of yellow and red, and the air is permeated by appetizing smells and exuberant dance music. The restaurant is larger than it appears from the outside and includes a sizeable dining area in an attached room to the right of the kitchen and cash register.

The woman running the register — who I would come to find is Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers, the restaurant’s owner and manager — was greeting every customer that walked in and enthusiastically describing the menu items to all who looked unsure.

Nursing junior Allie Van Zoeren was standing in the front room looking like a seasoned veteran of Pilar’s, and I asked her about her history with the restaurant.

“Well, it’s pretty close to my house. And it’s really tasty and pretty inexpensive,” Van Zoeren said as she awaited her sweet plantain tamale and drink.

Her drink was horchata, a brown-colored rice concoction that I had always been curious about since hearing the Vampire Weekend song of the same name. I ended up ordering a glass of horchata and a chicken pupusa, which Sylvia described as a little Salvadoran pizza.

The pupusa was shaped like a hand-sized pita bread, filled with a tasty meat-and-bean stuffing. It came with a side of salsa, which I dipped the pupusa, relishing the delicious flavor. The horchata, which was chilled and tasted creamy and almost chocolatey, was equally delectable.

Afterward, I sat down with Joe Rivers, Sylvia’s husband — as Sylvia was busy expanding her brand and meeting with potential clients about catering a wedding — and discussed the restaurant’s cuisine, an homage to Sylvia’s homeland of El Salvador.

“Salvadoran food sort of has a particular style of its own,” Rivers said. “It tends to be a lot more grains. Because of the dynamics of El Salvador itself, there’s a lot less meat in things. There’s virtually no dairy.”

“And Sylvia does very much believe in locally-produced ingredients,” Rivers continued. “So, we do as much organic as we can.”

The restaurant, Rivers went on to describe, was founded 12 years ago and named after Sylvia’s aunt, Pilar, who ran a successful tamale business in Ann Arbor in the ’80s and ’90s.

“There’s definitely sort of a lineage with these tamales,” Rivers said.