MeXo: Pre-Columbian upscale cuisine

Mexo's sopes are made with a Nixtamal masa dough hand-shaped cup; filled with your choice of sirloin picadillo and cotija cheese or vegan cuitlacoche; topped with lettuce, tomato and salsa cruda; and served with Molcajete salsa. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

When Peter Krupp decided to open MeXo, he was seeking a level of Mexican cuisine he’d become familiar during his time in New York City and Chicago.

Here, a fresh sope is assembled. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

It was specifically in Chicago, where Krupp fell in love with the traditional Mexican fare from Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill.

“We started going to Rick’s restaurants 30-plus years ago and he was always just a little bit more refined, closer to what we can get at restaurants in Mexico,” he said. “When I’m in the mood for it, TexMex is awesome, but we wanted more refined, more moles, more traditional flavors.”

Grand Rapids is certainly awash with TexMex spots. It’s also home to many great taquerias, but what he hoped to bring to the city takes that authentic feeling and pushes it up a notch.

And so it was at 118 E. Fulton St., formerly home to Brian’s Books, that Krupp and his CDKI Dining group opened MeXo and focused on traditional, and largely pre-Columbian, Mexican cuisine. CDKI also owns Sandy Point Beach House in West Olive and the recently opened Chicago Beef Joint, 822 Ottawa Ave. NW.

To man the kitchen and ensure MeXo was a chef driven concept, Oscar Moreno was brought on as chef. A native of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Moreno infuses his modern approach to food with the pre-Hispanic foods from the nation.

Earlier this year, the American Culinary Federation (of) Greater Grand Rapids voted Moreno Chef of the Year and MeXo earned a nod as the Ethnic Origin Restaurant of the Year.

And it is, at least in part, Moreno who makes MeXo a gem in Grand Rapids. His persona shines when he hits the dining room floor, but his food can make people smile. Whether it’s brunch, lunch or dinner, the flavors are big, bold and fresh. (Amazingly, because of the pre-Hispanic nature of the menu, most of the items are naturally gluten free, and many dairy free.)

Let’s start with dinner, and with that the appetizers. The masa dough centric starter menu is a fun way to experience the MeXo flavors. The little dough nuggets are fluffy and savory and packed with a variety of toppings and fillings. Whether it’s the sopes filled with sirloin picadillo and topped with lettuce, tomato and salsa or the Huaraches with Morita Flada, filled with beans and topped with smoked peppers, brisket, red onion and cojito cheese, or the Puebla Mole Bites, chicken and rice wrapped in masa and topped with chayote (a Mesoamerican fruit that’s like a crush between cucumber and squash, with a touch of apple) and jicama slaw, the morsels are little bombs of flavor.

Oscar’s Baja Tacos, made with beer battered mahi-mahi and tossed inMeXo’s salsa macha, topped with homemade tartar sauce, salsa cruda and papaya salsa. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

There is of course the course that should not be missed, chips and salsa and guacamole. But while you have the chips on the table, don’t miss out on the ceviche.

I have not yet had the pleasure of a soup, but those are on the agenda for my next visit — the Pozole Verde looks great, with a hominy stew with braised pork, tomatillo, beans and cilantro. And as we head into summer, the Watermelon Salad looks like it’ll be a crisp way to enjoy a meal with tajin compressed watermelon, julienned jicama, chayote, cucumber, basil and arugula with a vinaigrette. (There’s also the True Caesar 1924, because as any true salad aficionado knows, the Caesar Salad originated in Mexico.)

Chef Oscar Morenos prepares Pollo Con Mole Poblano dish over an open flame. The dish consists of Tepache and morita marinated free-range chicken, topped with mole poblano, and served with escabrche and cilantro rice. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

For entrees, there are Tex-Mex friendly options, including the Enchiladas Rojas and Oscar’s Baja Tacos. There’s also a smattering of deconstructed tacos as well. There is also a Local Mushroom Taco plate, made with guajillo pepper infused mushrooms, from local Pebble Creek Mushrooms, that can tickle the taste buds.

But beyond those options, diners can dive into an array of items that lets Moreno’s talents shine, like the spicy shrimp dish Camarones Ala Diabla, the Red Snapper Zarandeado and the Pulque Wild Boar Tenderloin.

And as mentioned by Krupp, the true star of a show at a traditional Mexican restaurant are the moles — a chili sauce that is as diverse as they come and vary by region and family. At MeXo, there’s the Pollo Con Mole Poblano and the Enmolada enchiladas as the two dishes that highlight it the most. And both are delicious.

The brunch is a special time as well, and certainly under appreciated. The basic Huevos Rancheros is a work of magic, as is the Huevos con Chorizo, and the Omelette Ala Espanola.

Bistec Ranchero gives the ol’ steak and eggs combo a run for its money with a nice spicy kick.

As for brunch drinks, the Bloody Maria — a Bloody Mary with tequila, but can also be subbed for mezcal — is a treat. But so is the coffee, a French press with star anise, clove, cinnamon and piloncillo. A few simple additions and the coffee is kicked up a notch.

And perhaps it is the drinks that help MeXo stand out even further. A true tequila and mezcal bar, MeXo has bucked the trendiness (although, yes mezcal has its fans and moments) of beer and whiskey in Grand Rapids.

Whether it’s the variety of margaritas or the Oaxacan Old Fashioned or one of the number of anejo tequilas or mezcals neat, the bar is a place to try and find a world not often well explored in West Michigan.

For me, the Paloma Classic with blanco tequila, Mexican Squirt, grapefruit, lime and salt is a winner. As is the Vaquero Sour, with reposado tequila, rye whiskey, lime juice, simple syrup, a few bitters and egg white.

You will find a full range of Mexican brews and the West Michigan staple Bell’s Two Hearted, but not much else by way of beers, and a limited wine menu.

There is an odd feeling a customer can walk away with from MeXo. Some might expect Tex-Mex, and it most certainly is not that. And that expectation can come Tex-Mex price expectations. So, the receipt can come as a bit of a shock.

But for the quality and creativity of the food, the price is more than reasonable when compared to some other West Michigan restaurants. It’s also possible to walk in and out of MeXo for right around $20 — say a smoked $14 beef brisket torta with a $4 Victoria beer.

Beyond the standards, MeXo hosts a monthly specialty dinner where Moreno truly lets his talents out. In March, when this article went to press, MeXo’s monthly dinner celebrated the Chicomecóatl civilization, an ancient Mesoamerican group that emphasized corn, beans and squash and helped shape what modern Mexicans eat today.

The dinners are themed similarly and let the chef and bartender showcase the possibilities of the restaurant on an even more specialized scale.

MeXo is among the spots — along with Grove, MDRD and the soon-to-reopen Sovengard — in Grand Rapids helping add a new vibe to the culinary scene and keeping longtime residents on their toes. Those restaurants add a nice variety to the rising trend of bars that feel like they’d fit in a big city, like Butcher’s Union, Post Off and Chateau.

It’s this type of concept with more upbeat, bustling, and adventurous menus that helps kee the growing number of big city transplants and returnees happy while also helping others come gently out of their comfort zones into beautiful, vibrant flavors.

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