We didn't intend for this trip to the US to be a multi-state search for Mexican (or Mexican-inspired) fare. But somehow, over the last couple of weeks, that's what it's become.
First came the squash blossom quesadilla, carne asado tacos, and grapefruit-and-jicama salad at Mijita, an ever-so-slightly precious, rather pricey, but very attention-to-details purveyor of undeniably delicious Mexican dishes in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza. Then came our brief guided tour of Oakland's taco trucks, serving more down-to-earth and considerably cheaper (but no less tasty) food. A few days later, we landed in the vicinity of East Lansing, Michigan, home to our undergraduate alma mater and Dave's parents.
If you imagine that the United States is a homogenous whole, try tracing that same path - from San Francisco and the East Bay, where the crowds jamming the entryways of all the anything-but-economy restaurants appear oblivious to the latest financial headlines, to Lansing, where it seems at least two front lawns on every block sport 'For Sale' signs (and at least two more houses are 'For Rent'). The streets of Lansing's attractively restored Old Town are nearly empty, many storefronts vacant. Driving me past the Oldsmobile plant where he earned astronomical sums as a college student - or what remains of it; demolition is in progresss - Dave remembered the days when you couldn't find a spot in its football-sized parking lot. Economic doldrums don't begin to describe the state of things in this part of Michigan.
But we found, quite by accident, a local story of economic success. One morning, after following a few Mexican food leads that ended up leading nowhere at all, we happened upon Handy's Mexican Deli. The sign that opens this post spoke to us. It said, 'Get your fix here.'
For thirty-six years Handy's Mexican Deli was Handy's Market, your average mini-grocery with a deli counter. Then a year or so ago Carlos (above right) and a friend purchased the place and turned it into a Mexican grocery cum takeout joint. The friend's wife Claudia (above left) signed on as cook and cashier. Handy's shelves are now lined with cans of Goya black beans, nopales, huitlacoche (corn smut, a rude name if ever there was one for something so deliciously earthy tasting), dried corn husks and pinto and black beans, masa Mexican brown sugar and pinatas.
The refrigerator case stocks tubs of Claudia's zesty red and whallop-packing green salsas, made fresh every couple of days. And the deli case displays all manner of burritos and tacos and tamales and enchiladas and even plastic containers of menudo to take away or eat standing or sitting in your car out front (for now tables are just a twinkle in Carlos and Claudia's eyes; we hope for major progress on that front within the next twelve months). The original owners of Handy's, who weren't ready to retire when they retired, are still around. Peek through the door behind the checkout counter and you'll see them in the back, chopping jalapenos or tending to other chores. Handy's old and new owners seem like one big happy family.
Business, Claudia says, is great. That has something much to do with the food, we know - but also, we suspect, as much to do with the new owners. When we walked into Handy's, full from a pretty decent but not 'wow' kind of lunch, we found them were ready to talk Mexican fare in Lansing. We bought a couple small items - a dulce de leche bar and a coconut treat, and Carlos shared his recommendations for decent Mexican in the area (Mongo's on Saginaw, he says, has 'good authentic food'. Unfortunately we couldn't fit Mongo's in on this trip.) Then Claudia asked if we'd like to try her salsa. When we responded in the affirmative she handed over a gallon-sized ziploc bag of housemade chips and a cup each of red and green.
'Um, can't I pay for this?' I asked.
With a great cook's confidence she replied, 'That's OK. You'll be back.'
And so we were. Business was indeed great - when we entered we found a thicket of patrons waiting in front of the deli counter for their orders.
With chips still left over we grabbed some red salsa (Claudia was fresh out of green, but obligingly dumped a pile of chopped jalapenos into our tub of red) and settled on a pulled beef burrito and a couple of servings of menudo. Plain and simple best describes the burrito, and that's not a bad thing. Tender, intensely flavored shredded meat combined with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and chopped jalapenos - no cheese, no sour cream (though they're available on request) - filled this soft, thin flour tortilla wrap, and it was spectacular.
And I couldn't help thinking, as I spooned up Claudia's menudo, that this was a dish a pork-eating Malaysian could love. Except for the posole (pleasingly chewy kernels of dried corn), all the ingredients are familiar: chilies, cumin, cloves, cilantro, pork, and tripe. Its fragrant brick-colored broth, not overly fiery but just nipping at the tip of the tongue, married flawlessly with the the tripe's subtle funkiness. Spare parts poetry in a cup.
Thank the God of Good Mexican Grub for serendipitous finds.
Handy's Mexican Deli, Willow Street (near Walnut), just up the road from Willow Plaza Shopping Center, Lansing, Michigan. 517-482-1156.