It was the day our teenager got her driver’s license. A glow came over her; she smiled and was generous and kind for the entire afternoon and evening. She agreed to go out to dinner with us. We were in a celebratory mood when she pulled into the parking lot at Juan’s Hacienda. She had her reasons, and we had ours.
I ordered a margarita — with salt, please.
Juan’s is a colorful place. Ladder-back chairs with rattan seats are sponged with multiple colors of paint — yellow, blue, red, purple. Mariachi hats, embroidered with sparkling silvery thread, hang near the ceiling. Ads for Mexican beer, strings of Christmas lights, a few piñatas (one of a worm). It’s the kind of place where there’s always room for another tchotchke. I mean, why leave out an inflatable hot pepper if you have one?
I brought a map of southeastern Michigan, and after we placed our orders, our teen driver pored over it and asked questions. Big X’s began to appear where her friends live. She ordered a taco salad, and then went back to her map.
The menu announces that Juan’s is the home of the flaming fajita; this we had to see. At $12.95, the flaming fajita tops the price list and comes with three small tortillas and a plate of beans and rice. These were excellent fajitas, with lots of charred green peppers and onions, grilled chicken and steak, well seasoned. It was great fun to watch our server pour brandy around the perimeter of the cast iron griddle and set it aflame with a click from a barbecue lighter. The liquor gives it a mellow flavor. Go ahead and splurge for the extra cheese ($1) because the flames melt it so nicely. All evening I heard servers saying, “Don’t touch the plate! It’s hot!” as they transferred the cast iron griddles from trays to tables.
The co-diner ordered a platillo Mexicano, which included carne de puerco (pork stew), guizada de res (beef stew) and picadillo (ground beef, well seasoned). This came much closer to things we had actually eaten in Mexico than what one usually finds in Michigan, and we were glad of it.
Chile rellenos are also on the menu, made with poblano peppers, another authentic dish. Tamales are another good choice.
Juliet Rueda, who owns the restaurant with her daughter Sharon Brooks, was born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico. Sharon says her mother was always the person whose cooking elicited the comment, “Why don’t you open a restaurant?” About three years ago, Juliet showed Sharon the restaurant and asked if she’d like to go into business.
I did learn one reason my fajitas tasted so good — they butcher their own beef at Juan’s and the chicken is cooked in a pressure cooker, not boiled.
Our very fussy teenager had no complaints about her taco salad, although she had to pick out all the black olives before she would eat it. Chimichangas are also good, although the co-diner was disappointed that beef meant ground beef, not steak. There’s good guacamole, but beware — it is sold at “seasonal price,” which turned out to be $8.50 for a large size.
There are four types of Mexican beer available, and they go well with this spicy fare.
Try the flan for dessert; it is served on top of a round of chocolate cake. There is also cheesecake and ice cream fried up like a chimichanga.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].