If you think you know Mexican food, think again. MeXo brings pre-Hispanic, Mesoamerican cuisine (think before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to Mexico) to Grand Rapids in a way that still says 2018.
Upon arrival, you’ll notice that the restaurant is deceivingly large, as it’s shorter than neighboring buildings. What it lacks in height, it makes up for in depth. It was formerly the site of Brian’s Books and an old furniture gallery.
The ownership team, CDKI Dining (of Sandy Pointe Beach House and Zoko822) has maintained some of the building’s original architecture: look up and you’ll see the original tin ceiling. Colorful banners hang on the far-right wall and, randomly, a projector displays a slideshow of period photos on the opposite wall. Lacquered wood tables overtake the expansive dining room with black mod chairs on the right, while the bar anchors the left side of the restaurant.
Chef Oscar Moreno runs the kitchen. He’s a native of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and he said the menu features many items reminiscent of his childhood.
“We’re not just serving Mexican food; we’re serving memories,” he said.
It’s a notion that he takes seriously. Many of the ingredients are imported directly from Mexico, like the avocados and jicama. Other components are sourced onsite from the lower-level greenhouse, which is visible from the street. It’s there that the restaurant grows an assortment of greens and vegetables, like cilantro, oregano, habanero peppers and microgreens. Tortillas are made fresh from house-ground corn — rather than relying on commercial corn flours.
The dishes here are flavorful, inspired from different regions of Mesoamerican cuisine. There aren’t any beef-and-bean burritos to be found.
With almost a month under its belt, one of the most popular menu items has been Chef’s Choice guacamole ($12), a feast for the eyes and the palate. It’s an Aztec-inspired ahuacamolli (in today’s terms, we’d call it guacamole) with avocado, onion, lime, tomato, cilantro, serrano chiles and spices mashed in a large molcajete (a Mexican version of a mortar and pestle). Its garnished with fresh seasonal berries; once you have blackberries with guacamole, you’ll never go back to boring regular guac.
For a heartier starter, try the pork belly pastor sopes. They’re essentially tacos al pastor in a tart form: the filling is made of pork belly (pressed in reduced oxygen for max flavor), pineapple, onion, cilantro and salsa and it’s nestled in small corn tortilla cups ($12). Or, for a tour de Mexico, try the ceviche trio; each ceviche sampler draws inspiration from different regions of the country ($16). Each ceviche is refreshing and seasoned well. They’re so good, you might not want to share with your table.
In true Mexican style, mole poblano (a traditional Mesoamerican sauce often made with chili pepper, nuts, spices and chocolate) makes a few appearances on the menu. MeXo updates the conventional recipe by forgoing peanuts to make it allergy friendly. Try it for yourself in the pollo en mole poblano ($26), made with slow-roasted, free-range chicken breast drowned in mole poblano and accompanied with seasonal pickled vegetables.
The true pièce de résistance of the menu is the cuitlacoche tamal stack ($22). The best way to describe it would be a tamale lasagna, but it’s so much more than that. A filling of cuitlacoche (a funky fungus that grows on corn), poblano rojas, fresh corn, mushroom and epazote (a Central/South American herb) layered between corn masa tamales. It’s earthy, packed with flavor and unlike anything you’ll eat in town.
Chef Oscar has other more adventurous plans in the works, like five-course, themed tasting menus featuring Mesoamerican food and ancient culinary techniques and ingredients (like crickets). These are definitely something to look forward to.
As with its sister property Zoko822, MeXo boasts an expansive bar menu. However, where Zoko focuses on gin, MeXo highlights tequila and mezcal. The bar serves up more than 80 types of tequila and more than 40 types of mezcal.
For those with less experience with this Mexican spirit, try one of MeXo’s refreshingly delicious margaritas, like the MeXo Margarita, featuring Cabrito Blanco, Bauchant orange liqueur, lemonade and citrus salt. It’s shaken tableside and also available as a mocktail (tequila free). These are margaritas to be sipped and enjoyed — not chugged like watered-down beach drinks.
Overall, MeXo brings a fresh, new look at Mexican cuisine that’s been unexplored by other restaurants in town, like Donkey Taqueria or Luna. The menu features plentiful vegan and gluten-free options and provides a wide range of menu items for both the culinarily cautious and adventurous.
Chef Oscar has been tapped by the both Grand Rapids Community College and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to mentor young (and aspiring) Latino chefs, so we’re sure to see much more to come from his involvement and his kitchen.
It’s places like MeXo that make you realize that all the other Mexican food you’ve had was a lie. It’s a restaurant that emphasizes cultural heritage and traditional culinary methods quietly; they let their food speak for itself — and it doesn’t just speak; it sings.
*Photos by Austin Langlois