To his friends, it was obvious that Jose Garduno should open his own Mexican restaurant. A native of the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán, Garduno had been trained by some of the best chefs in Cincinnati, rising through the ranks from dishwasher to lead line cook and becoming a knowledgeable confidant for his bosses. He had even consulted on a restaurant that went on to be a roaring success. Why not take his skills and go into business for himself?
There was just one small problem. He had no idea how to cook Mexican food.
For anyone who has dined at Garduno's year-old Mexican spot, Mi Lindo Michoacán, such a claim of inexperience may seem laughable. And these days, Garduno is indeed proficient in the food of his homeland, having honed his craft over the last several years at a handful of Mexican spots around St. Louis.
For Garduno, however, it doesn't seem like so long ago that he was an immigrant brickmaker who, desperate for money, took a job as a dishwasher at an upscale Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati. Although he knew nothing about cooking, he was drawn to the restaurant because he heard that the owners would give him a place to live rent-free while he earned money to get on his feet.
As he toiled away at the dish station, he couldn't help but be mesmerized by the Chinese delicacies gracing the plates he'd just cleaned. A bastion of authentic cuisine, the restaurant served food prepared by top chefs from Hong Kong who would cycle in and out of the kitchen for months-long stints. They spoke no Spanish, he spoke no Mandarin, and neither spoke English. Somehow, though, he was able to communicate his curiosity to learn. Before he knew it, he was on the line, reading and speaking Mandarin, and perfecting how to cook Peking duck.
Garduno left Cincinnati for St. Louis to be with his brother and sister and helped them out at two different markets. However, when the opportunity came to help open a Chinese buffet in Festus, he jumped at the chance to get back into his culinary comfort zone. Following the owner's passing, Garduno ran the place for a year before deciding to strike out on his own. This time, however, he was armed with a budding repertoire of self-taught Mexican dishes and was ready to open a restaurant that honored his homeland.
His first effort, Garduno's, was well-received, but he was forced to close the Cherokee Street spot in August 2015 following his divorce. Determined to have a place of his own again, he searched for the right space and settled upon a storefront on Gravois, just a few blocks north of the iconic windmill. He named his new restaurant Mi Lindo Michoacán, which means "My Beautiful Michoacán" after his home state, and got to work developing a menu that encompassed both the more gringo-friendly fare that he believes American diners want and the more authentic specialties that bring in a mostly Mexican clientele.
In this sense, you could have two vastly different experiences of Mi Lindo Michoacán, depending on what your order. On the one hand, there's the gooey, chorizo-laden "Choriqueso" dip that, while salty and satisfying, is basically Super Bowl party fare. Call it "queso fundido" or "sausage cheese dip," but it's the same thing you get anywhere that serves refillable chip baskets.
You could also order a chimichanga — the same exact chimichanga you could get at any chain "Mexican" spot. The chimichanga is delicious in that basic sense: crisp, greasy, filled with peppery steak and served with enough sour cream to fill a dairy case. I doubt I'd see this on a street vendor's cart in Guadalajara, but there's a time and a place for this sort of easy comfort.
Perhaps nothing is as comforting, however, as Mi Lindo Michoacán's "Pollo Ranchero." Garduno calls the sauce on the dish addictive, and this is an understatement. Here, he draws upon his experience in Chinese cuisine, marinating the thinly pounded chicken breasts in an ambrosial concoction of Asian-style sauces (hoisin, soy, oyster and a few other secret additions he won't disclose). He then coats the chicken in Mexican spices and grills it so that the marinade and spice dusting meld together for a deep, rich glaze. It's a flavor fusion that makes you realize perhaps Garduno is on to something special.
The chili rellenos further his case. Like most others of the form, two cheese-filled green peppers arrive with a side of rice and beans. But instead of the bland red sauce that covers the dish at more Americanized restaurants, the sauce here is rich, creamy and packs some sweet heat. It reads like a cross between queso and mole.
If the chiles rellenos provide your first clue that this is a legitimate Mexican spot, the tortas confirm it. A pillow-soft, buttery bun is stuffed with pork al pastor. The juices from the succulent meat and pineapple soak into the mayonnaise-slathered bread. Large slices of hot green chiles keep things from getting too rich. It's an excellent sandwich.
By the time you get to the "Empanadas de Mariscos," any doubt as to Mi Lindo Michoacán's Mexican bona fides goes out the window. Unlike other empanadas, which are more like doughy fried dumplings, Garduno's version looks like a cornmeal omelet. The empanada is flecked throughout with octopus, shrimp, crab and white fish, and filled with a fiery chili sauce that punches through the rich seafood.
Whitefish ceviche, served atop a tostada, is shockingly fresh and mouth-puckering — a pleasant counter to the rich empanada. Garduno also shows his comfort with delicate preparations on the "7 Mares" seafood stew. Though the fish was of so-so quality and I found more than a few shrimp shells in my bowl, the broth is outstanding. Light yet full-flavored, it has a subtle heat that sneaks up on the back of your throat. It makes the dish.
Garduno's piece de resistance, however, is his "Molcajete," a dish that alone validates the restaurant's existence. The menu's description (nothing more than a bare-bones laundry list of ingredients) and the accompanying photo do nothing to prepare you for what proves to be a dazzling display: A massive, searing hot lava rock mortar arrives bubbling with chicken, shrimp, chorizo and steak, all marinated in a spicy, chili-infused sauce. As the various meats continue to cook, they break down into the mortar and fortify the hot sauce with their drippings. Strips of tender cactus hang over the side of the dish and large rectangles of queso fresco are interspersed amongst the meat and marinate in the cooking liquid. The "Molcajete" comes with a side of warm flour tortillas so that diners can make their own wraps — though if you're anything like me, you'll find yourself devouring the meat directly out of the bowl and using the tortillas to soak up the delectable sauce like a sponge.
With a dish like this in his pocket, you'd think that Garduno got his start in his abuela's kitchen, not in the back of a Chinese restaurant. But no matter how he got here, there's no longer any doubt. Whether you're chowing down on the Americanized stuff, the authentic dishes from south of the border or even the Chinese-inflected dishes that nod to Garduno's culinary past, this talented chef knows how to cook Mexican food.
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