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Where Mex Is Rex

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Customers find more places to park their sombreros



Muchas burritos.

Diners with a taste for salsa now have some definite choices when it comes to eating around Ann Arbor. At least four new Mexican restaurants have opened here in the past year or so.


“It’s the No. 1 ethnic food on the rise,” says Carlos Shaffran, president of Don Carlos Mexican Restaurante, one of this area’s newest spots to enjoy foods from south of the border.

Also new are: The Burro, Bandito’s and the Prickly Pear Cafe - where long lines recently prompted the owners to give customers beepers so they can browse downtown until a table opens up.

The Mexican newcomers spice up competition for established taco haunts such as Tios Restaurant (offering some of the hottest sauces around); La Pinata Mexican Restaurant (with the neon martini glass on its landmark sign); La Casita De Lupe (in Kerrytown); Chi-Chi’s; and several Taco Bells.

Tios’ owner Tim Seaver says the new Mexican restaurants haven’t and won’t affect his thriving, 8-year-old business. And, he cautions the newcomers if they’re counting on the University of Michigan for business.

“Most think the campus is an unlimited market, and it really isn’t,” he says. Nevertheless, if eateries are going to open today, it makes sense that they’re Mexican, he says, agreeing with Shaffran.

Mexican cuisine seems to be to the 1990s what Chinese food was to the ’60s-’70s and what Italian (pizza) was to the ’70s-’80s.

But Mexican isn’t a guarantee of success. Shaffran’s experiment with a fast-food Don Carlos at North Campus Plaza in 1990 didn’t fly. He closed that restaurant in 1992, explaining that ecological Ann Arborites didn’t go for the plastic forks and plates, plus the location could’ve been better.

And another recent Mexican restaurant closing, the former San Pedros on Washtenaw, didn’t mean the demand for Mexican food locally is low. In fact, Shaffran took over this place, changing it to Don Carlos.

He’s thankful Chi-Chi’s and Taco Bell taught Americans what tacos and burritos are. Now Shaffran is capitalizing on that acquired taste with his mother’s authentic Mexican recipes.

Surely, diners won’t find “beef tongue layered in green sauce” at Taco Bell. But being authentically Mexican obviously isn’t what all the other restaurants in town are after:

■ Bandito’s Callfornla-Style Mexican Food, at 216 S. Fourth Ave. since late 1992, was started by transplanted Californians. The restaurant, which seats 50, doesn’t serve alcohol. There also is a Bandito’s in the Irish Hills area. A shredded beef burrito is $2.75; served with rice and beans, it’s $4.25.

■ The Burro opened in early 1993 on William Street near State Street under the motto: ‘It’s a kick.’ Similar to Tios’ serve-yourself format, diners order and pay for their food at the counter, then wait to hear their names called when the food’s ready. It’s crowded when about two dozen people are there, and high, backless stools make for on-the-go meals rather than lingering lunches. The owner, originally from Georgia, followed his U-M Law School girlfriend to Ann Arbor and targets the college crowd. A shredded beef burrito is $4; or $2.75 for the “baby” size.

■ Lingering is more likely at Don Carlos, the former San Pedros near the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti border at 4890 Washtenaw Ave. Here, diners can get fairly private tables, alcohol and cloth napkins. At this southeast Michigan chain, meals begin with free chips and salsa and end with complementary sopapillas (deep-fried tortillas with sugar, cinnamon and sugar). The No. 16 Fajita Burrito is $6.95.

■ Prickly Pear Southwest Cafe, next to Gratzi’s at 328 S. Main St., mixes classic cuisine and Mexican-inspired Southwestern cuisine, a fusion invented by its owner/chef, trained in French and Italian cooking. It opened in late 1991, designed as a restaurant where customers can come in jeans to eat chili or enjoy a special night out. Takes a milder approach to Mexican fare. Dinner menu items include Chicken Empanada with toasted pumpkin cheese sauce ($9.49) and Crab Cakes with green chili chutney ($9.49). At lunch or dinner, a beef burrito here is served with beans for $7.75.


A sampling of local Mexican eateries:

■ Bandlto’s, 216 S. Fourth Ave.

■ The Burro, 619 E. William St

■ Chi Chi’s Mexican Restaurant, 3776 S. State St.

■ Don Carlos, 4890 Washtenaw Ave.

■ la Casita De lupe, 315 Braun Court, Kerrytown.

■ La Fiesta Mexicans, 529 W. Cross St, Ypsilanti.

■ La Pinata Mexican Restaurant, 2204 W. Stadium Bivd.

■ Mexican Jones Restaurant, 675 W.

Grand River Ave., Brighton.

■ Prickly Pear Cafe, 328 S. Main St.

■ Santa Fe Chili Co., 20 N. Washington St, Ypsilanti

■ Taco Bell locations include 2280 W. Stadium Bivd., 615 E. University Ave., 3860 S. State St. and 2333 Washtenaw Ave.

■ Tios Restaurant, 333 E. Huron St.

■ Trini and Carmens, 50 E. Territorial Road at US-23 in Whitmore lake.

Suzy Valentine and her husband, John, enjoy' the food at The Burro, a newly opened Mexican restaurant at 619 E. William St., near South State Street.