Restaurant > DiningBorder skirmish
The thing about Maria's Comida, "A Taste of Mexico," is that it's not very ... Mexican. If you seek Mexican food, go to southwest Detroit. If you're in Hamtramck and want a big plate of food, you could try Maria's.
I'm not Mexican, but I've visited that country 14 times, and I live on the southwest side. I know which restaurants never to grace with my presence (look for chimichangas and an emphasis on margaritas) and which are authentic — not through studying hard but because they're doing home cooking. Look for menudo, whole beans and maybe tongue tacos on the menu (you don't have to order them).
Food doesn't have to be authentic to be tasty, of course. Those are two different measuring sticks. But though I found a few dishes I enjoyed at Maria's — along with sweet and excellent service — I couldn't get past the fact that this was a gringo-ized version of Mexican food familiar to everyone from their school cafeteria days.
Let me say here that Maria's Comida was the Metro Times Readers' Pick for Best New Restaurant in fall 2008. Perhaps Yelp.com contributor Misty J. was one of the voters; she writes, "This is seriously the best mexican [sic] place I've been to." So you may choose to believe Misty et al. and take my views with a grain of salt.
Maria's is owned by chef Alan Pronko and managed by his daughter Marie, aka Maria. Before opening in Hamtramck, his last job was sous chef at P.F. Chang's China Bistro — another example of ethnic food homogenized for American tastes. (Actually, I shouldn't insult my fellow Americans with the assumption that they can't or won't embrace a wider range of flavors than are found in a Betty Crocker cookbook. A lot of us do!)
So Maria's Comida serves big helpings of non-spicy, cheese-covered food, including chimichangas. Guacamole is not made in-house but bought, as are the refried beans, the tamales, and the mixture of white and orange shredded cheeses that appears on salads, with fajitas and elsewhere (perhaps the theory is that unless it's orange, we won't recognize it as cheese). Refried beans are the usual tasteless, texture-less mess you can find anywhere, including the Mexican food section of your supermarket.
Dishes I liked better than others at Maria's were jalapeños stuffed with lime cream cheese (but use more stuffing), the verde sauce for enchiladas (but use more of it), and the house-made desserts. Note, however, that the jalapeños come with a sauce made of mayo, ketchup and sour cream; don't dip. Salsa is made fresh daily and tastes it, though it's quite bland.
A "Carnita" pork sandwich sounded promising, hopefully similar to the carnitas — crispy pork bits — that are so good in tacos, with a simple topping of cilantro and onions. Served on an extremely soft bun, it turned out to be remarkably similar to my mom's Sloppy Joes, soft pulled pork in a sweet sauce. As I said, it doesn't have to be Mexican to be good, but this sandwich bore no relation to carnitas.
A chorizo and chicken burrito, the most popular order, was advertised as spicy — three stars — but wasn't; the chorizo generated about as much heat as body temperature. Fajitas were so bland they needed salt. But shredded cheese and sour cream came with!
If you like the kind of tamales where the masa is dry, which is more common around here, Maria's serves the best I've found of that genre; they come from Mexicantown Bakery. I strongly prefer a moist tamale as at Pollo Chapin or El Comal, with a tender dab of chicken or pork inside rather than dry shreds, but among the dry versions, the masa here is notably fluffy and light.
For made-to-order fried ice cream, an American-born dish, Chef Pronko coats his ice cream with Frosted Flakes, to good effect. The tortilla "bowl" it comes in has also been deep-fried, imparting a mild donut-like flavor. Sopapillas — in this case triangles of crisp, deep-fried flour tortilla — are admirably sugared and cinnamoned and served warm. I didn't get to try Pronko's house-made tres leches cake (the three milks are evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream), but this is usually a rich and soothing comfort food worth trying.
Maria's has a patio out front, which ought to be fun, but no liquor license. They serve Coke products or pop from Mexico — Jarritos — and that's an example where authentic does not equal tasty.
Maria's is the best Mexican restaurant in Hamtramck. You may believe your fellow Metro Times readers about it, or you may believe me. I'd go with me; that's why they pay me the big bucks.
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.