The story behind the best tacos in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 5:53pm

Finding the best tacos in Ann Arbor can be hard. Not because there aren’t great tacos around, but the place where they’re sold is so easy to miss. In an especially nondescript strip mall on an especially nondescript section of Packard road, four miles from central campus, sandwiched in between a barbershop and a Middle Eastern market, is Tmaz Taqueria.

A white cockatoo perches outside, preening himself in the hopes that a customer will toss him a scrap of tortilla or a nugget of chicharrón. Judging by the serene silence of those eating, punctuated only by an occasional moan or scrape of fork against plate, it’s not looking likely.

I have been to Tmaz many times, for their defiantly spartan tacos — just two corn tortillas, filled with meat, chopped onion, a sprinkle of cilantro, with some lime wedges and hot sauce on the side. But today, I arrive hungry for answers. Most pressing: how did this amazing little place end up in Ann Arbor, Michigan?

The interior of Tmaz is expansive and brightly lit. It used to occupy just the narrow space next door, which now contains the open kitchen and a few tables. In May, it expanded to include the former grocery store next door, where a long curving counter and ice cream cooler share space with more tables and banks of shelves containing Mexican sweets and dry goods. A faint echo of Latin pop drifts out of the kitchen.

Cesar Hervert, chef and owner, emerges from the kitchen to greet me. We can’t shake hands just yet, because he was just elbow-deep in a mixture of flour and shortening, kneading dough for pastries. He excuses himself to wash his hands, and we then sit together at a spare table. Hervert, a short man with a three-day stubble and an easy smile, recounts the long, sometimes arduous journey he and his family have taken to achieve their present success.

Hervert was born in Veracruz, Mexico, on the Gulf Coast. His father, who owned and managed restaurants, made his son mop the floors and wash dishes after school.

“I hated it,” he chuckles. “At that age, I was like ‘I don’t want to do this.’ So when I grew up, I decided to teach.”

After high school, he found work as a middle-school math teacher and started a family. By age 24, he had a wife, Anna, and two sons, Josue and Kevin. But economic prospects in Mexico were limited.

“Raising two kids, at a young age, I decided to find a better way to raise them,” he says.

He heard that the increasing Latino population around Detroit needed Spanish-speaking teachers. He moved his family over 1,500 miles north, to Ann Arbor, only to find that getting certified as a teacher required thousands of dollars and endless struggles with bureaucracy. To make ends meet, he did what he knew how to do.

“Having a family, raising two little kids, getting into college … it’s impossible without a lot of money and support,” he says. “That’s why I decided to stay in kitchens.”

For years, Hervert worked in restaurants all around Ann Arbor, starting as a dishwasher, then prep cook, then line cook. His former animosity towards the restaurant industry evolved into a genuine passion. His family was settled, his kids were in school. But he wanted his own restaurant, and he knew a niche that could be filled.

“I was looking for real Mexican food,” he says. “And that’s why we opened this place.”  

A small space in a small strip mall was available. Hervert and his wife signed the lease. They christened the restaurant Tmaz, after Anna’s hometown of Temascalcingo, near Mexico City. They drew up a simple menu. They had no idea what to expect.

“We thought, ‘Let’s just open something and see if it works,’” he said. “In the beginning, it was just friends, and we had two tables. And it kept growing and growing.”

That was four years ago. Now, they’re a local institution, beloved by everyone from fellow Mexicans to University students to workers on lunch-break.

“I have Muslim customers who don’t eat pork, Indian customers who don’t eat meat, Latinos, Asians, everyone comes here,” Hervert said, beaming with pride.

In addition to the food tasting good, Hervert wants Tmaz to be an educational experience. In the United States, where more salsa is sold than ketchup, and where Chipotle is becoming more popular than McDonalds, many Americans still have no idea that what we think of as “Mexican” food is really Tex-Mex.

“People come looking for hard shells,” he says. “We don’t have hard shells. People come looking for nachos or burritos — I don’t have anything against them, but I grew up in Mexico, and I had no idea what a burrito was. I saw Speedy Gonzales grabbing a burrito, and had no idea what he was doing.”

At Tmaz, what you’ll find instead are those simple, splendid tacos, bowls of menudo (tripe soup), tortas and hibiscus-flavored agua fresca. When an order for guacamole enters the kitchen, the cook starts by peeling an avocado.

A few non-Mexican items, like pupusas and churrasco, dot the menu — nods to the local Latino community, many of whom hail from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and for whom Tmaz has become more than a restaurant. The ice cream and fruit pops are made by a Mexican family in Kalamazoo who are trying to start their own business. An office in the former grocery store allows many immigrant workers to send their paychecks back home. And Hervert is slowly filling in the shelves with ingredients that can’t be found in most grocery chains: tomatillos, cactus paddles, guava and over a dozen types of chiles.

In addition to all of this, the Hervert family still work together at the restaurant. I ask Hervert if he wants his kids, now 20 and 16, to take over the business.

“I don’t see why not,” he says. “But of course, as a parent, you want something better, you know?”

Josue is an unlikely candidate — he wants to be a lawyer. But Kevin loves working in the kitchen, and is applying to local culinary schools. His father wants him to go beyond the family restaurant.

“I tell him to go to different places — California, New York, Miami — and learn different cuisines,” he says, radiant. “Then, maybe he can go off to Europe.”

Before I leave, I tuck into a bowl of menudo. The nubbins of tripe are tender, the sauce is spicy but not too much. The menudo has taken a long journey to get here, but isn’t tired at all.