Tios Mexican Cafe, Ann Arbor, Mich.
From the beginning of my quest to experience the best restaurants, which predates this blog by several years, the main rule has always been that unique places are always the most worth visiting. Most of the time, that means something native to that region, such as Minneapolis’ Juicy Lucy, the Polish Boy in Cleveland, Nashville’s hot chicken or Kansas City barbecue. But a totally different spin on a well-known favorite is also about as unique as it gets, regardless of region.
The latter is the case at Tios Mexican Cafe, located near the campus of the University of Michigan. The latter would have to be the case for Tios, because absolutely nobody associates Mexican food with Michigan, with the possible exception of the fact that college students love Mexican at night (I spent more than enough nights out with my friend Will to know that’s the case). In fact, Tios takes advantage of this fact by staying open past midnight and hosting an all-day block party on Cinco de Mayo, both sure ways to get into the hearts and minds of the loyal college crowd. But really, Tios is much more than the typical late-night Mexican destination.
The earliest sign that Tios isn’t the typical Mexican place comes in the form of their milkshakes. Yes, that’s right, milkshakes in a Mexican place. Certainly not the first thing that anyone ever thinks of when one thinks of Mexican, but Tios somehow makes it work with an impressive arsenal of flavors. Strawberry, hot fudge, Reese’s, Oreo, banana, almond and Heath bar are just some of the options available, but of course, following my almost-permanent rule, I had to go with peanut butter.
This proved to be an excellent choice. The shake was loaded with peanut butter, so much so that even after blending, there were visible signs of peanut butter hanging on to the side of the cup. That’s exactly what should happen with a real shake, and this was surprisingly an excellent one. Definitely a solid score on the uniqueness scale.
But that’s only the beginning, because Tios really gets unique when it gets to its bread and butter, its multitude of Mexican dishes. First, there’s the thing that got this place on Man vs. Food, and that would be known as Mount Nacheesmo. Of course, Amy and I weren’t going to be crazy enough to order one, because Mount Nacheesmo is a five-pound plate of nachos with queso and basically every topping known to Mexican food that comes in at just under $40. Obviously, that’s a little much for a plate of nachos that we aren’t going to finish.
So we opted for a smaller version of Mount Nacheesmo, which proved to be Tios’ Nachos Grande. Basically, it’s a much more reasonable-sized version of Mount Nacheesmo, featuring chips, beans, cheese, onions, peppers, black olives, sour cream and guacamole, with one meat included instead of the trio of chicken, beef and pork that come on Mount Nacheesmo. You can also get a vegetarian version with portobello mushrooms, which are basically the steak of the mushroom family.
Seeing as how Amy loves mushrooms, it was a pretty obvious choice, and we weren’t at all disappointed. If you regularly read this blog, you know that another of my rules is that the fresher something is, the better it’s going to taste. Tios makes as many things as possible in-house, such as their refried beans, sour cream and guacamole. It all results in a wonderful mix of flavors covered in melted cheese, which is slightly different from the queso on Mount Nacheesmo but is still excellent. There really isn’t anything else this plate has that is any different, and I really don’t see a way it could be improved, especially with the mushrooms. The portabellas added another unique layer of flavor, which really made these nachos stand out.
Nobody lives on nachos alone, however, especially when you have someone with you who both knows great Mexican (one of the many benefits of a girlfriend from Florida) when she sees it and is just as interested in trying the unique things as you are. We knew for sure that we couldn’t stop at just nachos when we saw Tios’ menu of tacos, which they refer to as their taco bar.
The name is misleading, as it’s not a bar in the traditional sense. It’s just their way of saying that they’ve got a lot of tacos, some of which you aren’t going to find in any other location. For instance, prior to coming here, I had never seen for barbecued rib tacos, but they do have them here, and even more odd, they have half slab and full slabs, which come as three or six tacos respectively. It’s certainly a big difference.
It’s also one I can’t speak of the taste of, because with so many tacos on the menu, Amy and I wanted to sample as many as we possibly could. So what we opted to do was get four and split each of them, thus allowing us to try four different kinds of tacos without actually eating four tacos. Have I mentioned how much I love having her with me on these trips?
Before I get to the ones we did order, some of the others that didn’t make our list include the Authentico, which features locally ground beef, onion and cilantro (like it’s done in Mexico), the Jerk Chicken Salad, which features spicy Jamaican Jerk chicken and the Americano, which is basically made in the standard style here in the States. All different in their own right, but not quite what we were after.
Instead, our medley included the Fish, Papas, Portobello and Tingas tacos (which are in clockwise order in the top picture, starting in the top left corner with the fish). The first and third are self-explanatory, and so is the second one if you happen to speak Spanish. Yes, it’s a potato taco, featuring baked redskin potatoes and poblanos. I’m not really sure why potatoes aren’t all that common with most Mexican places, seeing as how Spanish culture uses a lot of potatoes, and I’m especially not sure after tasting this one. It’s a lot like a Mexican baked potato, and it’s simply awesome. Definitely worth coming for on its own.
But we had three others to sample, and the Tingas was actually my first. It’s a chicken version of the authentic Mexican taco, made in a chipotle sauce that gives it a little kick, but not too much of one. The spice works perfectly, and this was another excellent taco.
So too were the mushroom and fish tacos. The mushrooms again were flavorful and seasoned well, and I remain convinced that it is simply impossible to have a bad fish taco if you have any clue what you’re doing. It’s made in the traditional style, with slaw and a jalapeno ranch dressing.
Speaking of slaw, that was one last thing we had to sample before we left. Amy was intrigued by Tios’ blue cheese cole slaw, so we decided to get an order (after all, I did have a milkshake) and see what it was like. Truthfully, I’m not the biggest slaw fan, and I still can’t say I am after tasting this, even though it was actually pretty good as far as slaw goes. The blue cheese gives it a nice bite, and it’s pretty tangy. I’m just not the biggest fan of slaw, unless it’s on a deli sandwich.
But I am a huge fan of great Mexican, and Tios more than delivers on that one. After just two meals in Ann Arbor, I can say the food alone is a recruiting tool for the University of Michigan, just as much as the fabled Big House. If you like Mexican, you’re going to enjoy this trip.
Time to go: Definitely not when we did, which was on Cinco de Mayo. We elected to take a May vacation to Michigan (which was outstanding), not realizing until we arrived for our second stop in Ann Arbor that we had come to a Mexican place on May 5. Yeah, very bad idea if you’re in a hurry. Fortunately, our wait wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, since we came early in the day. Try to come at lunch or dinner, and avoid the college crowd if you can. Unless you’re into that scene, in which case, go nuts.
Wait during my visit: We waited, but not too long. Again, we were very fortunate on this one.
Location: Tios is at 401 East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, Mich, near the campus of the University of Michigan.
Cost: Not too terrible, considering we got a side, four tacos, a plate of nachos and a milkshake. If you’re just getting an entree, plan on about $10 a person.
Parking: Not near the place, but Ann Arbor does have plenty of garages. One nice surprise: they’re free on Sundays.
Seating arrangement: Mostly booths, but there is a bar as well.
Website: Tios Mexican Cafe. Be warned, the site doesn’t always work right, and to see the menu, you have to act like you’re ordering something for pickup. Although it is cool that they offer that feature, it is a pain that you can’t otherwise see a menu.
Specialty: Mexican, nachos, tacos