Yeah, I'm writing about damn Detroit again. But hey, to be successful, don't you have to keep doing the same thing over and over?
Southwest Detroit is like a world apart, a forgotten time, its rundown buildings a collection of scabs and open sores along the mighty, polluted waters of the Detroit River. Smokestacks glitter in the night sky and turn a section of Interstate 75 into the world's largest, smelliest Dutch oven. Blacks, Mexicans, and old holdovers from the stern-faced white Appalachians and Eastern European immigrants that settled the area a century ago with battered suitcases in hand make up one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the city. The factories that once brought prosperity and life to the city close in on the old neighborhoods like boa constrictors, and whatever kids there are watch TV hooked to breathing machines designed by Rube Goldberg.
Southwest Detroit is a dirty, grimy place, home to hopeless, crumbling facades of old art deco and beaux-arts glory, inspired by the classical world of Zeus, lost Aztecs, and our meteoric, star-crossed rise to prominence. The tallest building in Southwest Detroit is the Michigan Central Station, a 230 foot, 18 floor grey skyscraper designed by the very same people that were behind New York City's iconic Grand Central Station. The leafy carved flourishes of the Corinthian columns and the worn reliefs of crested godheads framing the broken windows of the once proud terminal are a glimpse into Rome, circa 500 AD, after the barbarians and the fall. It's a far cry from the suburban, manicured world of Paradise Avenues just a few miles away and the accompanying armies of sprinklers on wide corporate lawns that move like dancers in a nameless ballet for no one under the deep blue sky. This is realer, somehow. Make a wrong turn and you might get stabbed, shot, assaulted, raped, beaten, and/or robbed, front page news – that’s taking life by the horns.
Yet, deep in the very heart of all this mayhem and chaos and decay is the vibrant neighborhood of Mexicantown, soaring like some extinct bird over a dim horizon. By all accounts, it shouldn't be there, but it is. Here, large, two-story homes are festooned with honeysuckles, baby's breaths, and poinsettias, and all manner of religious iconography - a hundred Virgin Marys cry in Southwest Detroit, for all our suffering. Businesses look alive with fresh coats of periwinkle, saffron, and lime and mint green. On one building, there is a mural depicting an endless row of Mexican men and womenfolk as they trudge alongside stalks of corn, their backs turned to the viewer. It reads: "In the spirit of the indigenous people who cultivated the land that was once theirs." Another building near a desolate back alley is host to a dancing skeleton celebrating the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Here, the rich art that is the human experience is still on full display.
Detroit's stark contrasts used to make me sad, actually, but now I like to look at it like a Tibetan sand mandala that's being wiped from the face of the Earth in a grand display of our own impermanence. Like those crazy bald monks that spend days making concentric diagrams from sand only to destroy their work once their done, we built Detroit to discover what we could be, and now we're demolishing it to show what we never could be. Driving down its wide, empty boulevards, you can see the remnants of what once was and what remains. But blink and another memory is lost to the wind, another section of the mandala that was Detroit "back in the day" gone, that halcyon day that exists only in the minds of those that cherished the city in their hearts. And how many of those people are even left?
That's why I want to capture Mexicantown in my mind while I still can, before it too is blown away. Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño, on 3149 Livernois Avenue, is situated just outside of Mexicantown, and offers Salvadorean cuisine instead of Mexican food. However, it's clearly spiritually and culturally linked to the neighborhood, another grain of sand in the mandala. Amidst the general decay it's a concrete slab of normalcy. The tiles are new, the booths are snug and cozy, and the ghosts of two proud Castilian knights in shining armor greet you at the door. A closed-circuit camera under the glowing Pupusería sign watches over your car – you can see the parking lot on a screen from where you’re eating.
Now, if you were Salvadorean, it would go without saying that a pupesería serves pupusas, a simple indigenous dish that's thousands of years old. But since you're probably not Salvadorean, I'll explain a little more. A pupusa is basically a quesadilla made with a really thick corn tortilla and stuffed with cheese and either pork, beans, loroco flowers, or vegetables . However, unlike a quesadilla, you don't cut it up into slices, but eat it whole instead. It's usually served with curtido, which is basically a sour cole slaw. At Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño, they add jalapenos to their curtido, giving it a nice kick, and they also hand you some liquidy but very fresh salsa in a tupperware container to do what you see fit with.
Though I'd like to say that the pupusas at Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño are the most amazing food I've eaten, I'd be lying. Of course, the hip intelligentsia that regularly ravage the bloated cultureless carcass of Metro Detroit in search of anything authentic would tell you that it's better than any other Hispanic restaurant EVER in the state, but I don't buy the hype. Sure, with a typical dinner only costing 6 or 7 dollars, it's definitely a great bargain, and all the food is made to order, which is rare.
The thing is, pupusas just aren't that amazing. It's hearty, working class food, utilizing a few basic ingredients to make something that tastes pretty darn good, but not great. The cheese, for one, tends to overpower the other fillings. There’s not enough balance in the dishes. I ordered a squash pupusa, and I couldn’t even taste the squash, only the cheese. For that matter, I can’t really tell the difference between their squash pupusa and their jalapeno pupusa. It's all just cheese, cheese, cheese. Well, at least their cheese has more flavor than your typical Oaxaca cheese. And who can hate freshly baked bread? Plus, they do brew a strong, aromatic coffee that would laugh in the face of any of that putrid coffee-flavored water they try to serve you at a typical American diner.
I'll confess. The real reason I go to Pupusería y Restaurante Salvadoreño is for the ambience – the wall adorned with the flags of countries from both South America and the Middle East, the Spanish TV stations broadcasting a never-ending stream of soccer matches, the gumball machines, and all the proud families that come in from the neighborhood to spend quality time together over a good meal. Like I said, it’s a nice, normal place, where you can be at ease and enjoy yourself. Outside, the world is being swept away. On a block right down the street, half the homes have already been torn down. It’s all vanishing before our eyes, and too fast. But here, everything is peaceful, real, and tangible. I can hold onto this mug for as long as I want. Sipping my coffee, I wonder: how long before I’m swept away, too?