During our visit to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, we decided to keep our tradition going for going out for Mexican food when we all get together for shows. My colleagues Ian and Simon had eaten at a Mexican restaurant during a small show they attended in Las Vegas the previous year and they said it was good. My colleague Todd was in charge of making restaurant plans once again this year and he booked us into the place - Lindo Michoacan. (Michoacan is pronounced "Mitch-wa-can")
The owner of Lindo Michoacan, Javier Barajas, has a pretty compelling story behind him and how he was able to make the restaurant one of the favorites around Las Vegas. Growing up in Michoacan, a Mexican state along the south central Pacific coast, the young Barajas had dreamt of going to America to make big money. He wanted to be able to drive a shiny new car back home, just like many men who came back to his village had done when he was a little boy.
His grandparents sent the young Barajas to study at a seminary in Michoacan. There was a wooden revolving door that separated the nuns who were cooking the food from the students in the dining hall. However, Javier struck up a friendship with the Mother Superior, communicating through a small crack in the door. After awhile, the Mother Superior asked Javier to come into the kitchen to help move pots and pans around. Noticing his keen sense of quick learning, they asked the young Barajas to help out in the kitchen, eventually teaching him the concepts and secrets of Michoacan cuisine.
Javier Barajas (pictured right) knew that he wanted to eventually go to the United States and become a cook there. But the only way he was going to be able to do that was to cross illegally. Along with an uncle who was the hoping to become a farm worker in America, the then 16-year-old Barajas crossed the border no less than 10 times. But each time they were picked up by border agents and sent back to Mexico. When he finally made it across the border, he bought a bus ticket to Los Angeles. Or so he thought. The problem was that he didn't speak any English and he ended up in Las Vegas. That was over 30 years ago.
Barajas eventually married an American citizen and that allowed him to stay in the country legally. He opened the first Lindo Michoacan location in 1990 using a lot of recipes that he'd learned at the seminary, as well as a number of recipes that he got from his mother. Barajas' father and mother eventually moved to the U.S. and helped out in the kitchen.
Today, there are four Lindo Michoacan locations in the Las Vegas valley. They've garnered the "Best Mexican" restaurant award seven times from the readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The executive chef for the Lindo Michoacan restaurants is Barajas' son, Javier, Jr. The young Barajas is a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and spent some time working for the Disney corporation before joining the family business. Javier, Jr. credits his grandmother with showing him the finer details of Michoacan cuisine.
Michoacan cuisine is famous throughout Mexican as a melding of foods from land and sea. "Michoacan" roughly means "Land of Fishermen" and not only does it have a thriving sea fishing trade, but the Mexican state is dotted with a number of lakes and rolling rivers to the sea. In addition to a lot of fish and seafood in the diet, Michoacan cuisine features a number of corn-based food, as well as different varieties of tamales. When the Spaniards colonized the area centuries ago, they brought along pork, chicken and beef recipes that are still prevalent today. With the vast and varied foods that Michoacan has to offer, it's no wonder that their cuisine is often referred to as "Mexican soul food" as Mexicans say that Michoacan is the soul of Mexico.
One of the reasons Todd picked Lindo Michoacan is that the main location on E. Desert Inn (see map) offers free shuttle service from hotels on the Strip. There were going to be 10 of us for dinner and the vehicle that we had in Vegas only sat 8 - and not comfortably. Todd checked to see how long it would be for the shuttle and we found out that it would be too long before they could pick us up. We decided to take 8 in the van and Ian and Todd cabbed it over. They got there a few minutes before we did and were already seated at a long table - pitchers of margaritas were sitting on the table waiting for us. The margaritas were pink - the house margarita we were told. They were good, but a little effeminate at first glance.
Lindo Michoacan was obviously a favorite of many people in the consumer electronics industry. I ran into a number of people who I've known in this business over the years. One of them, Ernie Coulter from Control 4, told me that their group always makes a trek to Lindo Michoacan at least one time during CES. "The food here is great," Ernie told me.
We were given menus and it was rather dark in the restaurant. Although it was brightly decorated in traditional Mexican restaurant colors and decor, it was difficult to read the menu. I took to using the LED light application on my smart phone to be able to read the menu.
The menu, itself, was vast and varied. They had a number of appetizers that I had never heard of or encountered before. I was especially interested in the Sopitos Steak Chorizo - six small handmade corn tortillas lightly fried and stuffed with steak and chorizo along with lettuce, black beans, tomatoes and sour cream. That sounded good as a dinner entree. (Picture at left courtesy Living Las Vegas)
They had a number of pork, beef, chicken and seafood entrees to choose from. They also had a number of egg dishes including Huevos Rancheros and Huevos Chorizo. But they also had an egg entree with your choice of either shredded pork or shredded beef. It all sounded so interesting.
Chips and salsa came to the table as we were looking over the menu. The salsa had a nice spicy kick to it and the chips were very fresh. Someone ordered up some of Lindo Michoacan's homemade guacamole. It was spectacular. The guacamole was very fresh and flavorful. There were three large bowls of it on the table and we all made short work of the guacamole.
When it came time to order, I was having trouble figuring out what I really wanted. A lot of the beef dishes were steak based, as in full steaks. I looked long and hard at the Novillo al Jerez - a filet marinated in a homemade sauce, then cooked with chopped onion and bacon bits. It's finished off with fresh garlic, peppers and Jerez, a sweet Mexican sherry wine. I almost went for the shrimp chimichangas, too. I can almost imagine that their seafood entrees at Lindo Michoacan would be very good. But when it came time to order, I had to think quick. I finally settled upon the Carnitas dinner - pork chunks marinated in orange juice and spices, then cooked up and served with a green sauce and guacamole. A chile toreado - basically a roasted whole jalapeno - came with the meal, along with refried beans and rice.
After awhile, our food began to show up at the table and we all dug in. While my pork carnitas were tender to the bite, the taste was rather bland and not very spectacular. I'm not saying it was bad, far from it. But to me it was just OK. There seemed to be some sort of pizazz missing with the meal. The roasted jalapeno gave the overall entree a little kick in the taste buds, but the pork was pedestrian.
My colleague Michael was seated next to me and he got the combination dinner with a beef and bean burrito, a shredded beef tamale and a beef taco. I asked him, "Where were the combinations on the menu? I certainly didn't see them."
Michael said, "It was on the back of the menu." I guess I didn't get that far into the menu before I ordered. He was having trouble finishing his portions, which were pretty big. I asked him how the tamale was and he said, "Good! Want half?"
I couldn't say no to that. The tamale was good, not great, but good. The shredded beef was a little shy on taste, but the tamale as a whole was good.
However, the biggest buzz at the table happened when Jon Baker, a former colleague of ours who we'd invited out to dinner with us that evening, got his order. He ordered the "El Burrito Bionico", but had no idea what it was other than it came with a choice of beef, pork or chicken along with rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, Monterrey Jack and cheddar cheese with sour cream and guacamole. It was $11.95 on the menu and - quite actually - sounded pretty good. When they brought it out, we figured out why - in English - it meant "The Bionic Burrito".
It was huge. It covered the whole large plate sitting in a pool of sauce. We were all surprised by the size, none more than Jon. "I didn't know what I ordered. If I would have known it was this big I would have never ordered it. But all the stuff they put inside, I figured it had to be pretty good." And it was. He offered me a bite of it and the combination of ingredients - he got beef for his meat choice - was very good. A couple other guys had a bite or two of it and, above right, is what it looked like when Jon waved the white flag and said that he was full.
When I went to the University of Iowa back in the early 80's, some friends and I would always go to Carlos O'Kelly's - which, back then, was about the best Mexican food we could find in Iowa City. After we'd finish, they would always ask if we wanted any fried ice cream for a dessert. Of course, after gorging ourselves on chips, nachos with cheese and jalapenos, THEN eating a large entree, along with having multiple beers, we were always so full that there was no way we could eat fried ice cream. We always said that someday we'd just go out to Carlos O'Kelly's and get fried ice cream - just fried ice cream - because, well, it sounded good. You know, that never happened. In fact, to this day, I'd never had fried ice cream at a Mexican restaurant.
Well, until our evening at Lindo Michoacan. The waiter, as a treat for our table, brought out four or five fried ice creams - on the house. I was so full from my dinner (I did finish all my carnitas, but left a lot of the rice and bean) as well as piecing on Michael's tamale and a bite of Jon's Bionic Burrito. But it was sitting there in front of me, calling my name. The fried ice cream at Lindo Michoacan has an outer crust of flour used in tortillas and cinnamon. Oooo.... The ice cream ball is rolled in the mixture and quickly deep fried making the outer shell crispy and the ice cream inside still cold. I finally broke down and had a couple bites. It was sinful and heavenly at the same time. I knew it would be good, but not that good.
I guess I'm having a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around what people have said for a long time that this Lindo Michoacan is the best Mexican food in Las Vegas. I guess I was looking for a mind-blowing Mexican food experience and I just didn't get that from Lindo Michoacan. I've had better Mexican food in the Midwest and I really thought this would be just out of this world. The service was good, the margaritas - albeit pink - were very good, the chips, salsa and guacamole was excellent, but I thought the food I had was just average at best. Would I go back? Yeah, sure, if everyone wants to go back during CES next year. I may try the shrimp chimichanga if I go back. But the other food I tried on my first visit didn't live up to the billing.