From N. Flores to Mexico, Direct

1224 N. Flores
7am-9pm daily
Credit cards
It’s like stepping off a street in San Antonio straight into Mexico. A prosperous part of Mexico, to be sure, where regimented rows of fluorescent fixtures illuminate shelves of products stacked in colorfully graphic multiples, where a spotless meat market displays cut after curious cut of uncommon carnes (cecina, for example, and bistec del siete), where a gleaming counter in quilted stainless serves up tacos, tortas, and daily-special plates …This and more is La Michoacana on North Flores, the newest of the five San Antonio locations of this “empresa de Mexicanos para servir a los Hispanos.” From its packaged chiles and herbal teas to specialty salsas and powdered health drinks featuring aloe, cactus paddles, and flax seed, the place is endlessly fascinating. As you know already, I’m easily amused by such things.

I’m less easily won over by lackluster food, no matter how culturally curious the setting, but if La Mich’s menu board generally reads like any ambitious taqueria in town, the proof on the plate is persuasive: there are things here you need to try, starting with the sometime special, tamal de maiz. I’d be tempted to call it a tamal de elote, for it’s much like that Michoacan specialty, the corunda, containing a sweetish, coarse masa studded with kernels of fresh corn. Make sure they serve it to you with crema and crumbled white cheese — and make sure you add salsa verde from the single squeeze bottle at the counter.

One of these with an agua fresca (we tried both tamarindo and the rice-based horchata, and both were a little sweet) is a lunch for the calorically cautious, and it’s a good one. But who will really want to stop there when the tamal can be followed by a taco of earthy birria (traditionally lamb or goat steamed with beer and a multitude of spices and chiles) lashed with sultry salsa roja? This dish is often soupier and spicier, but for taco purposes, it works just fine as prepared here.

Some of the scarier items from the meat counter — the hooves and trotters, for example — may make it onto the taco line from time to time, but tongue was the only dish to challenge the squeamish during my visits. That and possibly the chicharron en salsa verde. Stop thinking so much and just do it, for this was the best pork skin in green sauce I’ve ever tasted: not too squooshy, just spicy enough, and thoroughly at home inside a sturdy flour tortilla. The teleras, flattened dimpled bolillos, are grilled before being assembled into a torta, but if you purposefully choose a stew-like filling, as I did, be prepared for some structural failure.

The advantage of a steam table is that you can point and ask; the menu board over the counter is minimally helpful when you get down to specifics. What looked like carne deshebrada turned out to be just that: shredded beef in a mild red sauce, perfect for a torta accessorized with crema and aguacate. Messy yes, but marvelous.

Tortas are $3.49, tacos are $.99 for tortillas de maiz and $1.25 for tortillas de harina, and the platillo with rice and beans is $4.99. Pay at the store’s checkout counter first.

Some handsome chiles rellenos were available for the plate lunch one day but not the next, so calabacita con puerco won the beauty contest, and several accolades for taste, too. (“Muy picante. No le hace?” asked the server in a kind of challenge. “Me gusta lo picante,” I replied with only a slight tremor.) Normally more calabacita than puerco, this plate reversed the equation and used a cut of pork, seemingly hacked ribs, that yielded a lot of bone but also big flavor in collaboration with a green sauce that managed to be mellow, tolerably spicy, and lightly acidic all at once. The rice is right-on, by the way, and the beans pass muster without any extra adjectives. On weekends, menudo, carnitas, barbacoa, and pozole are also available.

I recommend a ramble through the store before or after eating. If you ask enough questions of the helpful butcher, he may well offer a taste of the carne seca (dried beef — salty, chewy, and far better than any packaged jerky you’ve likely had before) and the chicharron prensado (taste first, examine later) packaged in mahogany-hued wedges.

A tour past the panaderia is also obligatory; though many of the offerings look familiar, there are also some surprises, notably the irresistible ojo de buey, a two-texture pan dulce with a cake-like center and a pastry-dough wrapping. La Michoacana offers cuernos, both plain sugared and cheese-filled, and I also must praise the camote-filled (or maybe it was calabaza) empanada. Some hand-written descriptions appeared on the pastry trays after my first visit, but don’t put too much stock in them: they don’t always correspond to the product at hand, but that’s part of the adventure. Just a step off the street.