Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army prevailed over French forces, only to keep fighting for a few more years over unpaid bills. For gringos like me, this means partying it up with Corona specials, burning unkempt cuticles with lime rinds, and tequila body shots slurped off my body by underage girls I'd not touch if it weren't for those margaritas and that rigorous Catholic schooling. In reality, this meager holiday allows us to enjoy America's comfort food, whether authentic cilantro-laden beef tongue tacos, or muy cheesy Tex-Mex nachos, this nationality has its grip on more American menus than any other.
As Lansing has Georgio's and Grand Rapids has Yesterdog, Kalamazoo also has late night bar-closing cuisine, á la The Big Burrito (5036 W. KL Ave.). Aside from its Americanized burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and tostadas, the must-have here is the Torta Sandwich-a handmade Mexican roll with beans, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheeses, avocado, pickled jalapenos and mayo with your choice of meat. For those with a never-ending appetite, indulge in the Don't Even Think About It burrito with extra meat for $23.99. That includes beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheeses, sour cream, with your choice of beef, chicken, steak, chorizo pork, fish, steak and egg, or chorizo and egg and a chance to reenact the gluttony scene in Se7en.
Hidden on the west side of Grand Rapids, Cancun Restaurant (1518 Grandville Ave. SW) may require you to brush up on your Spanish to accurately explain your order so you don't end up with a malt and fresh oysters. At this hole-in-the-wall, you probably won't notice the swordfish and sharks adorning the walls, or the shellfish mobiles suspended from the ceiling. You may not be able to hear the jukebox either; you'll be too busy scolding yourself for overindulging in fast food for far too long. Tacos here are stripped of the American makeover, and what remains is the subtle elegance of onion and cilantro, an array of six chile pepper sauces and lime for individual taste, double wrapped tortilla and served open-face for $1. The tamales (tamal, technically) are similar in approach, with simple corn dough and chunks of pork, chicken, or beef. Cancun also features a children's menu with burgers, etc. but that would just be an insult to the magic that's harnessed in the kitchen.
Opened by Evencio Sanchez in 1983, the appropriately named Mexicali Restaurant (595 W. Columbia Ave., Battle Creek) serves up a delicious mix of Mexican and Californian entrees most Americans mistake as pure Mexican. Here, you can sit against the wall murals and design your own combination plate, whether you prefer chalupas, chimichangas, flautas, enchiladas, or empanadas, have it made with sour cream, jalapenos, guacamole, and pico de gallo, served with a side of Spanish rice, refried beans, and queso (cheese). For something new, try the House specials, either the Rollito Mariachi for your favorite ingredients in a new way or the Chicken Mole (mole is a thin sauce, not a rodent from your yard) and then try flan for dessert-cream caramel with whipped cream and more caramel.
At Flamingo's Restaurant (1163 E. Laketon Ave.), Uncle Al's Chips ‘n' Cheese will meet that nacho need, pronto. A staple of Muskegon, these tortillas are loaded with your choice of meat, cheese, tomatoes, green peppers, hot peppers, onions, mushrooms and beans, smothered in meat gravy. As opposed to Cancun's tacos, Flamingo's are Americanized variants with lettuce, cheese and tomato, with choices of barbacoa (slow cooked) pork, beef, and chicken. Even better, they're on sale for $1 every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday after 4 p.m.
For a more relaxed dining experience, check out Tres Lobos Mexican Cuisine (381 Douglas Ave., Holland and 825 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids). Complimentary chips and salsa will start you off (and help sober you up after too many decadent margaritas) as an appetizer, but I'd rather skip to their Ceviche de Camaron, an appetizer of shrimp diced with onions, tomato, cilantro, and jalapenos with lemon juice, served with chips. After wolfing that down, I heavily suggest you sample the seafood menu. Huachinango a la Veracruzano is a fried red snapper with veracruzana sauce (a salsa-like tomato sauce) and is quite different than what you could find elsewhere. Tres Lobos has live entertainment every Friday and Saturday night and if that and the menu isn't enough to bring you out, may el chupacabra get you and your goats.