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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. “The tamales that we make are the same family recipe that (Sylvia’s) grandmother made in El Salvador, the same ones that they grew up with.”

Pilar’s is completely family-run and operated, and the vibrant dining room area is decorated with Salvadoran paintings and memorabilia and is populated by a number of assorted customers.

“We have a very diverse clientele,” Rivers said. “Sometimes we get academics who are having staff parties or parties at home. But, like I said, I think people just recognize the quality and the flavor, and if it’s within their pocketbook, they do it on a consistent basis.”

In their 12 years of business, Sylvia has created over 40 different flavors of tamales, 30 of which come back each year. This Valentine’s Day, the restaurant is even introducing a strawberry and chocolate tamale.

Overall, Pilar’s Tamales has high-quality, flavorful food at an inexpensive price and a rousing, Salvadoran atmosphere.

On the complete opposite side of town, Tmaz Taqueria is a small Mexican restaurant in a plaza on Packard. After finding a spot in the crowded parking lot, I entered the restaurant and was greeted by Cesar Hervert, the owner and manager.

Compared to Pilar’s, Tmaz had a very relaxed atmosphere. The yellow walls are not quite as vibrant and the music is certainly calmer than the upbeat songs that echoed through Pilar’s, but the food smells just as delicious.

After looking at the menu, which is filled with countless taco and quesadilla options, I ordered a chicken quesadilla and a glass bottle of Pepsi, which I grabbed out of a refrigerator filled with various Mexican and American bottled sodas.

I have had many quesadillas in my day, but I think I can honestly say that the one I ate at Tmaz was the best I have ever had. The cheese and chicken were both incredibly fresh, and the tortilla was grilled to perfection. Altogether, my meal was tasty, filling and satisfying.

After eating, I sat down with Hervert and discussed his restaurant, which he has only had for a little over a year.

“I used to manage restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor,” Hervert said. “But I started out like everyone else, in the kitchen and washing dishes, and I worked my way up.”

Hervert went on to explain how he ended up opening a store on Packard.

“It’s hard to find a place in Ann Arbor,” he said. “And since the Latino community isn’t located in one specific place — it’s really spread out — I decided that somewhere between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would be a good place, and this location ended up working out.”

The word “taqueria,” Hervert explained, is the Spanish equivalent of “taco place,” and fans of Chipotle and other chain restaurants might notice something missing from the menu.

“People ask why I don’t have burritos,” Hervert said. “And it’s because I think too many restaurants already target that.”

Instead, the menu resembles what one might find at a stand in Mexico City, with healthier and fresher ingredients.

The “Tmaz” part of the restaurant’s name comes from the name of Hervert’s hometown, Temascalcingo, Mexico. In fact, the interior of the restaurant is designed to resemble Temascalcingo’s famous ancient saunas.

Hervert also noted that some students think his restaurant is too far from campus, and he discussed the possibility of someday opening a store downtown.

“My friends sometimes tell me, ‘Hey Cesar, there’s an open spot (downtown),’ ” he said. “But for me, it’s like, ‘I have to wait.’ ’’

In the coming years, Hervert hopes to expand his clientele and continue his successful venture on Packard before looking for another location.

Though I still possess this negative capability of enjoying both imitation and authentic Latin American food, my trips to Pilar’s Tamales and Tmaz Taqueria have genuinely convinced me of the importance of the latter.

To Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers and Cesar Hervert, their respective restaurants are more than just a business with a profit motive. With every tamale and taco they sell, these owners make it clear that they are preserving the culture of their homelands — and filling the stomachs of the people of Ann Arbor with delicious food.


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