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Rare is the restaurant where you walk in and almost immediately feel you’ve stepped inside the home of a family member.
That feeling swept over me within seconds after setting foot in Amanecer Mexicano. We were greeted as family, or at least good friends. So were other customers — sometimes in Spanish, other times in English, always with warmth.
“Instant family” doesn’t come in a box. Thirty seconds in the microwave and poof! ready to serve. No, it comes from the heart. And Amanecer Mexicano is first and foremost about heart.
A placard on the east wall hangs below the photograph of a man we are told is the owner’s father. Written in Spanish, it says: “The most important man in our lives, who taught us to fight for our dreams.”
Reimagined from an old fish and chips chain restaurant, Amanecer Mexicano is mingling its dreams with ours — assuming your dreams are a soulful prayer for real Mexican cuisine.
After two visits, Judy declared this place to have the most authentic Mexican food in our community. I would go further. It’s some of the best Mexican food I’ve had anywhere, including housemade dishes we’ve tasted in Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City and Huatulco.
By all means, don’t pass over the Pico de Gallo, a $1 add-on that is worth thrice that. The key word here is fresh, as in fresh cilantro, onion, tomato and loads of garlic. Subtly spiced, it makes a perfect companion for a variety of dishes, from gorditas to guacamole. (The guacamole, at $4.75, is equally outstanding and equally fresh.)
Amanecer Mexicano translates as Mexican Sunrise, which aptly describes much of the menu. This is a breakfast and brunch place. We made our first visit a breakfast outing. As you can imagine, this is not the place you go for waffles and pancakes.
Try the Chilaquiles with over easy eggs ($10.99). Housemade tortilla chips are stewed in tomato sauce and then shredded chicken, refried beans and cheese are ladled in.
I ordered gorditas filled with eggs, beans and cheese, with an add-on of smoked meat called barbacoa. These scratch-made “little fat ones” are cousins to the taco, but most often the masa is pinched together to completely enwrap the filling. Gorditas are $3 each, and compare favorably with the handmade gorditas crafted each May at the Cristo Rey Fiesta in south Lansing.
On our next visited we opted for brunch, which begins at 11 a.m. Hands down, the brunch winner was the Carnes en su Jugo (“meats in their juices”) for $11.99.
Thinly sliced beef is stewed in beef broth, probably for many hours. Pinto beans are added, and eventually the dish is topped with bits of crisp bacon, bite-size chunks of fried tortillas and, just before serving, a fresh scallion. It reached our table piping hot. Topped with fresh cilantro and diced onions brought separately, this is plainly, simply, a remarkable feast for the eyes and stomach.
I ordered two tacos, one stuffed with battered shrimp ($4.50) and the other with breaded fish ($3.99). The breading in both cases was not overdone, allowing other flavors to shine through. Both shrimp and fish were decked out in red onions; diced tomatoes, a speck of shredded cabbage and a light drizzle of spiced, homemade cream.
Where’s my thesaurus? I need some new synonyms for “outstanding.”
Mexican food is sometimes considered unhealthy, a debate I will leave to others. However, it’s worth noting that Amanecer Mexicano offers a number of fresh fruit smoothies, fruit salad and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The latter is served more or less at room temperature because, well, when they say fresh-squeezed, they mean exactly that.
The homey touches are worth noting. I saw a row of wooden clothespins dangling from a wire stretched above a kitchen workstation — no doubt an economical but useful way to hold orders.
There’s little doubt that heritage is important here, and not just familial connections. A portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo hangs on one wall, and scattered about are tiny molcajetes — Mexican mortar and pestles that are essential in many Mexican kitchens.
Food, family and clinging to one’s heritage while fighting for our own dreams. Sure sounds like home to me.
— Mark Nixon
Throughout high school and college, I did what everyone else did and ate at Taco Bell. I became conditioned to think that all Mexican food had to be dripping in cheese and that seasoned ground beef was the only protein option. Since those dark days, I’ve changed my ways. I’ve learned that corn tortillas are vastly preferable to flour, that any dish featuring chorizo is a dish that I’m going to like and that cheese can be used sparingly, or sometimes not used at all.
Amanecer Mexicano opened in September and, as the name suggests — amanecer translates to dawn — offers breakfast and brunch options and closes at 3 p.m. The menu is decidedly small and aggressively egg-forward. The interior of the restaurant is swathed in neutral tones, and bowls of fresh oranges have replaced the giant neon sombreros found in many local Mexican chain restaurants.
On a recent visit, Mr. She Ate started his meal with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, which was made in-house right before our eyes. I haven’t had orange juice in literally years — I always say that I would rather eat my calories than drink them — but this juice was incredible. Our only criticism of it was that it was room temperature, and would have been even more refreshing served cold.
For breakfast, he chose the Machacado, which the menu describes as “two scrambled eggs with shredded dried beef.” Three of Mr. She Ate’s culinary favorites are sandwiches, pizza and well-done eggs — he doesn’t prefer a runny yolk or a soft scramble — and these eggs perfectly fit the bill. The beef was well seasoned and the portion was definitely hearty enough for breakfast, but not disgustingly enormous as found in so many other Mexican restaurants.
I chose the eggs with Mexican sausage (code for chorizo, my fave) and loved the combination of creamy scrambled eggs with slightly spicy, crumbled sausage. Both of the meals came with sides of thinly sliced fried potatoes, refried black beans and the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had. We ate everything and watched as the restaurant slowly filled up with east-side hipsters, people in suits conducting business over eggs and coffee and a group of girlfriends meeting for a post-holiday recap. Spoiler alert: Everyone has a relative who asks inappropriate questions. It doesn’t stop when you get married or have babies — it just gets weirder.
On a return visit, I ordered breakfasts to go. I headed home with an order of Enchiladas Amanecer Mexicano, which were a miss. The hit of the day, and an instant new household favorite, was the Migada. A thick corn tortilla was fried in butter and topped with my chosen chorizo, crumbled cheese, sliced avocado and a drizzle of crema. I’ve never had anything quite like this, and if cholesterol was no object I’d like to eat it every day. For those of you who also used to frequent Taco Bell and who remember the ridiculously named Mexican pizza, this was a better iteration. The tortilla was thicker than normal in order to withstand the heft of the topping, and on future visits I look forward to trying the Migadas with barbacoa, ricotta cheese or prickly pear cactus, the latter of which sounds particularly intriguing.
I’ve waxed poetic in this space about Lansingites embracing the different cuisines represented by people who live here. Traveling to other cities around the country and around our state makes me realize that it’s atypical to have so many wonderful Middle Eastern restaurants, a successful barbecue/Vietnamese restaurant, and the like that are so completely embraced by our whole community. Amanecer Mexicano is another beautiful illustration of this phenomenon, as evidenced by our mayor documenting his recent visit on his Facebook page. Service is unflinchingly attentive, even as Mr. She Ate and I wandered in, bleary eyed, toting an infant car seat. Even when Baby Jane started to kick up just the smallest fuss, nobody side-eyed us. The kitchen is gleaming, the prices are right and the food is fantastic. Word to the wise — they aren’t open Wednesday.
— Gabrielle Lawrence
Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
2418 E Michigan Ave. Lansing
(517) 574-4461, facebook.com/AmanecerMexicano1