Ay caramba!

Caminos de Morelia is a fresh face in a storied building

House guacamole
Photo: Beverly Poppe

The free-standing structure that houses Caminos de Morelia, one of our newer Mexican restaurants, is simmering with history. For years, it belonged to Lou and Angie Ruvo, a couple who operated a seminal Vegas Italian restaurant called The Venetian, the only place in town I knew of to eat pork neck, a dish I sorely miss.

(Lou Ruvo, it should be mentioned, is no longer with us. But his name lives on at the groundbreaking Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, due to open, according to his son, Larry, in the near future, with a design by architect Frank Gehry.)

Then, the Ruvo family sold the building to local entrepreneurs, who turned it into a pub with the controversial name The Slanted Clam. That concept did not fly, though, and now the same group has intelligently turned it into a Mexican restaurant with cooking suited to both local Mexicans and non-Mexicans.

More3713 W. Sahara Ave. 364-9657. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Suggested dishes: ensalada de nopales, $8.95; Zamora la Bella, $10.95; pollo al mojo de ajo, $11.95; machaca, $8.95.

Caminos de Morelia

3713 W. Sahara Ave. 364-9657.

Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., until 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.

Suggested dishes: ensalada de nopales, $8.95; Zamora la Bella, $10.95; pollo al mojo de ajo, $11.95; machaca, $8.95.

It looks as if the location may have found its niche with this concept. Thanks to a sure hand in the kitchen, Chef Miguel Magana, a veteran of the Tillerman steakhouse, the food here is both smart and versatile. There are occasional missteps, such as a carnitas that was deep fried after being oven-roasted, but so what? This place may turn out to be a huge hit.

Come in here any evening, and you’ll see why. One night, while a soccer match played on an overhead TV, a group of local Mexicans were conducting a meeting of a local sport club while cheering on their respective teams over chips, salsa and margaritas. Live band music plays on weekends, and everyone seems to be in a festive mood.

The redesign is soothing and homey as well. The walls are burnt ochre, and there is a hip particleboard floor in the large, boxy main dining area. One side of the restaurant is a bar with gaming and bar tables furnished with high stools. All in all, this is a comfy space where the noise level is reasonable, so it’s possible to dine here and have a conversation.

Once you’re seated, the chef will send out a molcajete (a short, three-legged Mexican serving dish) filled with homemade bean dip. Between the dips and chips, it’s easy to overdo it before you even get started.

And don’t order sopa de fideos, hearty Mexican noodle soup, if you plan on eating a main dish; it’s already included. This version is as soothing and delicious as the ones I often eat at Sanborn’s, the Mexican all-purpose drugstore/ restaurant. It’s a tomato-based broth with a rich, spicy kick, densely packed with noodles the thickness of angel hair.

One appetizer to consider is ceviche, Mexico’s answer to Japanese sashimi or Italian crudo. Ceviche is marinated raw fish, but the marinade, a combination of lime, chopped onion, cilantro and tomato, partially cooks the fish. Magana’s ceviche is based on tilapia or shrimp. I prefer the more flavorful tilapia, but to each his own.

Many in the Spanish-speaking crowd will be eating ensalada de nopales, a refreshing salad made from the edible part of the cactus, mingling with tomatoes, onions, radish and cilantro. The house salad also puts cilantro, the pungent leaf of the coriander plant, to use in a creamy dressing, adding avocado, cucumber, chicken and tortilla strips to an already generous mix of greens and tomatoes.

When it comes to the big hitters, all the combos have Aztec names, hard to say tongue-twisters such as Uruapan and Patzcuaro, two cities in Michoacan, the Mexican province that is home to Morelia, the hometown of Chef Mangana. I like Zamora la Bella, red chili pork and a freshly made chili relleno, oozing cheese. Another good choice is Turicato, chicken enchiladas, a beef taco and a chile relleno.

Mariscos, or seafood, is restricted to shrimp and tilapia, here translated as mojarra (the name literally means “perch.”) I’d choose the classic camarones al ajo, shrimp with garlic sauce, or the mojarra done the same way. I’m also wild for the pollo, or chicken in garlic sauce, or al mojo de ajo in this menu. Whatever you choose, you’ll get rice, beans, noodle soup and hot tortillas with it, a veritable feast.

The only red meat entrée I tried was the deep-fried carnitas, but there are several styles of Mexican steaks on the menu, including the well-traveled steak ranchero, topped with a spicy tomato sauce that the chef also uses to make huevos rancheros with, served all day.

There are other breakfasts on this menu, one being machaca, shredded beef, also served with eggs, and chilaquiles, fried corn tortillas smothered with red or green sauce. There is even menudo, the funky tripe and pozole (hominy) soup that Mexicans swear by as a cure for a good, old-fashioned hangover. Most Mexican places, as it happens, only do menudo on weekends. Caminos de Morelia serves it every day.

And as a restaurant for anyone with a yen for a Mexican meal, Caminos de Morelia is a pretty good option.


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