Detroit is lucky to have an abundance of colorful Mexican restaurants serving the gamut of the cuisine, including food that would be eaten in the highlands of Mexico as well as the Tex-Mex food found mostly in America.
At Peso Bar, a new modern restaurant in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood just outside of Mexicantown, owners are serving cuisine largely from the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Even the margarita list, easily one of the best in town, has a direct link to the central Mexican region near the Pacific Ocean.
Peso co-owner Eddie Vargas, a 20-year veteran of the Detroit restaurant industry (he’s only 35), developed a special house-made sour mix for their margaritas using agave syrup from the Jalisco family farm of another Peso owner, Tony Lopez. Vargas calls it C.A.B. — citrus agave blend — and he uses it in almost all the margaritas along with fresh herbs, freshly squeezed juices and creative ingredients, such as coconut water, rose petal water, hibiscus, smoked rosemary and jalapeño bitters.
The entire cocktail list is an homage to Mexico, Jalisco specifically. Besides a whopping 20 margs (plus whatever may be on special that day) Peso Bar has a list of cantaritos (traditional Mexican cocktails often served in clay cups) and five varieties of palomas, including the paloma de Oaxaca, a mezcal-based cocktail that is smoky and has the right balance of sweet and bitter.
Vargas recommends the small, but mighty, coquitas as a pre-dinner drink. It’s an 8-ounce bottle of Mexican Coke with a little of the pop poured out and replaced with a shot of high-proof sugar cane liquor. It’s served right in the glass bottle for $6 each or $30 for a round of six.
The cocktail list also has cheap beer, nonalcoholic drinks and margaritas and sangria by the liter.
I’m going on and on about the drinks because that’s where Peso Bar really shines. And it’s no wonder: Vargas has a background in cocktails and Lopez’s family owns Cabresto Tequila.
Peso Bar, located across the street from Mexican Village with a view of the backside of the Michigan Central Station, is as much of a restaurant as it is a bar, though. Vargas has set up the affordable menu so each entree can be ordered as a torta (a sandwich), wrapped in a burrito or plated with rice and house beans.
Jalisco is represented here with the birria, meat that’s been braised in chili ancho and other “secret ingredients.” Peso’s birria is based on a recipe of Vargas’ father, who is from Jalisco. Eddie says his dad uses lamb, but at his restaurant it’s a beautifully braised beef that is served chunky, tender and without too much heat.
Besides as a torta, plate or burrito, the birria also appears inside the shareable plate tacos doraditos from the starter menu. These fried-shell appetizers are warm and crispy and topped with some queso fresca and crema.
At $10 and up for these entrees and $4-$12 for shared plates, Peso is one of the few new businesses that I’ve seen open up in Detroit that is priced like a neighborhood restaurant and not a hot new destination.
In fact, one of the best uses of $5 on this strip may be Peso’s street elote dish. Served off the cob, this grilled corn treat is smothered with ancho aioli, cheese, peppers and onions. It’s sweet, the corn kernels burst with juice and there’s enough cheese to get a melt-y string going (and unlike corn on the cob it won’t wedge itself between your teeth).
The elote is the creation of Peso chef Antonio Reyna, who executes Vargas’ menu.
Besides Jalisco, the contemporary offerings include nods to the Yucatán and even the United States with their “original California” dish of grilled steak, thick steak-cut fries, pico de gallo, guacamole, queso fresco and house beans.
Another commitment to freshness and seasonality is showcased in the ever-changing “mystery” cocktail and dish. Peso will change this feature up regularly as produce becomes available or just to offer something unique. A recent mystery dish was chapulines guacamole, a dip made with toasted and seasoned grasshoppers, which are a popular snack in regions of Mexico and have been seen around town more often as of late.
Peso is on the small side, with rustic, casual seating in the 55-seat dining room that is accented with colorful lights, including a neon sight that says “make tortas not war.” The bar, which has 8,000 Mexican peso coins shellacked into the top, seats a tight eight and gets busy as diners come in and wait for a seat.
The frame of the small sidewalk patio is accented with shiny chrome rims from Lopez Tire (another of co-owner Tony Lopez’s contributions to the restaurant) that give a nod to Chicano culture, but also just look really cool.
Besides Vargas and Lopez, Peso Bar is also owned by local guys Jose Maldonado, Carlos Daniel, Corey McIntosh and Jacques Driscoll. Each brings a different skill set to the business, largely in the realms of marking and hospitality.
This space was formerly Michigan-themed Huron Room and later Fists of Curry, both owned by Driscoll’s restaurant group, which also has the nearby Green Dot Stables and Johnny Noodle King. His other concepts here didn’t last long, but I’m hoping Peso, which opened in April, has better luck.
The prices are generous, and the way the menu is set up allows for a lot of variety so you can find a flavor you like and try it different ways. It’s kind of loud, it’s often crowded and it has a bit of a nightlife vibe if you go later on. Lunch and brunch service may be added in the near future.
I’m looking forward to the next project from these business owners. Five of them (all but Driscoll) will next open Toma Detroit, a Latin American restaurant and craft cocktail bar specializing in tequila and mezcal. A winner of last summer’s Comerica Hatch Detroit $50,000 grant, Toma Detroit is preparing to open in 2020 in Corktown on Michigan just east of Rosa Parks.