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Posted on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 8 a.m.

Taqueria La Fiesta offers authentic Mexican food

By Mary Bilyeu


Paulina Cardenas, daughter of co-owner and head cook Estella Cardenas, serving dessert tamales - sweet corn and pineapple coconut.

Mary Bilyeu | Contributor

I was privileged to be invited to a family dinner at Taqueria La Fiesta recently, complete with fabulous food, wonderful people, and great conversation. And the primary topic?

What constitutes "authentic" Mexican food?

A number of taquerias, bakeries, and markets have opened in Washtenaw County of late, each proclaiming to be "authentic." One person's version of a particular dish, however, might differ from another's depending upon what region of Mexico the family comes from or which area one has visited. Just as arguments abound as to whether chili is made with beef cubes or with ground meat, with beans or without, there are debates about genuine Mexican cuisine.

And this isn't an easy question to answer even if you were born and raised in Jalisco, as the taqueria's head cook and co-owner, Estella Cardenas, was. As she says, "Mexico is a country with 39 states, and each state has their own food." Climate, water, history... everything factors into the cooking styles.

Some aspects of authenticity, however, are clearly established. For one, Mexicans use fresh ingredients; "No cans, no cans!" I was told. As George Roman — co-owner, cook, and Estella's nephew — explained to Jeremy, Craig and me as we enjoyed the meal he and Estella had prepared for extended family and for us, "The basics, at the root level of our cuisine, is just a matter of what's available."


Mary Bilyeu | Contributor

And so, the Sopa de Poblano con Papas (Poblano Pepper Soup) that we enjoyed is often made with tomatoes. However, because they aren't always available — and an authentic dish would be both seasonal and regional — the lovely, creamy version we ate had none of these summery fruits. They were reserved for salsa to brighten the Shrimp Tacos served as the entree.

Authentic cooking is also "homey" rather than pretentious; to George and Estella, it's food that they want to eat themselves, comforting recipes that they were raised with. They use family recipes — the one for birria comes from Estella's father, another for nopales from her grandmother's family, and the recipe for barbacoa was passed down from her grandfather's family in Northern Mexico. These are not merely concoctions devised to offer a Mexican flair. "Cuisine has a direct lineage... it is living, breathing."


Mary Bilyeu | Contributor

Another aspect of authentic Mexican cooking involves its history. There is not just a Spanish base, though that is readily apparent. There is still a strong presence from the Aztecs — seen in such items as tortillas, carnitas, and spicy mole.  And there are hints of French influence, as well, seen in the football-shaped birote (a variation on the baguette; it has a crunchy exterior and a soft middle) and Pollo Rosita made with a white wine and cream sauce.

I was told, "We can't compromise who we are. We're trying to show culture, tradition." And so, another way of doing this is to use "authentic" Mexican ingredients. Corn, a wide variety of peppers, and tomatoes are all native to Mexico, and thus are prominent in the cooking. Chocolate — known before colonization as "xocolatl" — is also featured in both sweet and savory dishes.

And most importantly, George emphasized, "Mexican cuisine doesn't have yellow cheese!"

At Taqueria La Fiesta, they are "not trying to be the end all and be all of Mexican food." Rather, George and Estella are merely representing the food of Jalisco, where the family is originally from, and preparing it to share with customers, who are treated as guests. As Estella said, "If you eat anything here, it's the same thing you would eat at home." She and George view themselves as "ambassadors of (their) culture."

Estella came to Michigan to visit her sister Michelle — George's mother, who owns and cooks at La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti — when her son was 10 months old; she thought it would only be for a vacation. But then her baby fell and hit his head, losing vision and many milestones and abilities. She faced a $157,000 medical bill, and decided to stay here in order to care for her child during a lengthy rehabilitation and to earn money to meet her financial responsibilities.

There was generous assistance from the Shriners, who helped with medical care. But Estella noted that she also "had the most beautiful people around (her)", as well, to help. "I feel they took me as part of Michigan." And she wants to return this favor and hospitality.

Thus, being welcomed to Estella's restaurant is very much like being welcomed into her home, into her extended family, and into her native country by way of nourishment and nurturing through food — authentic Mexican food, showcasing the history of both Mexico and of her ancestors.

Taqueria La Fiesta
4060 Packard Road
Ann Arbor
Hours: Monday through Saturday - 10 a.m. till 9 p.m. Sundays -10 a.m. till 4 p.m.

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Mary Bilyeu writes for on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, telling about her adventures in the kitchen - making dinner, celebrating holidays, entering cooking contests, meeting new friends ... whatever strikes her fancy. She is also on a mission to find great deals for her Frugal Floozie Friday posts, seeking fabulous food at restaurants on the limited budget of only $5 per person. Feel free to email her with questions, comments, or suggestions:

Go visit Mary's blog — Food Floozie — where she enthuses and effuses over all things food-related; and look for her monthly articles in the Washtenaw Jewish News. "Like" her on Facebook, or send a tweet on Twitter, too.

The phrase "You Should Only Be Happy" (written in Hebrew on the stone pictured in this post) comes from Deuteronomy 16:15 and is a wish for all her readers - when you come to visit here, may you always be happy.



Wed, Mar 13, 2013 : 11:11 a.m.

We always forget about the Taqueria even though it is just around the corner, but last week we all wanted mexican and had little time to make it. So I went down the street to get some. Everybody loved it. I do wish they had better take out menus to take home so ordering would be easier. The web site just takes you to an on line order form where I would have prefered something to print out. Ordering once I got there was inefficient in a homey way, but everyone was very nice. We will definitely get food from them again.

Sofia Toti

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 4:24 p.m.

B4 you argue about cubes vs grnd or beans vs no beans you have to settle chile vs chili & beef vs pork.

Jessica Webster

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3:15 p.m.

I've never had a dish I didn't love at Taqueria La Fiesta. Even when it's not a family dinner, it feels like you've become a part of their family when you eat there. Delicious, lovingly-made food.


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

Jim is right, great food, very friendly people


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 2:17 p.m.

Great food, Tamales are excellent. It is on Packard, just East of Carpenter


Tue, Mar 12, 2013 : 1:03 p.m.

Address? Hours?