Vincente Guzman of Armando's Mexican Restaurant creates a botana, a Detroit speciality. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Southwest Detroit— It’s become common to see cable TV chefs and hipster food bloggers discovering Detroit cuisine. Much overlooked in the blitz of coverage, however, is a dish as unique to the Motor City as the coney dog.
That would be the botana, born in the one and only Detroit neighborhood with a Mexican accent: southwest Detroit. Since the mid ’70s, the locally influenced botana — the proclaimed inventor says he got inspiration from the coney dog and Canadian poutine — has been one of the most popular dishes in area Mexican restaurants, and it continues to be a staple.
“If we took botanas off the menu, I think people would burn down the place,” said James Galan, owner of Los Galanes on Bagley Avenue.
So what exactly is this irresistible dish? Depends on whom you’re asking. In Mexican Spanish, the language spoken in Mexico and often in U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Houston, the word means snack or appetizer. If you say you want a botana, it’s as generic as saying you want a sandwich.
In Detroit Spanish, however, botana means something specific, yummy and calorie-busting. It’s hot corn chips layered with a mix of chorizo sausage and pinto beans, then covered with melted Muenster cheese, topped with onions, green peppers, avocados, tomatoes and pickled jalapenos, sometimes with olives and lettuce on top.
It’s served on a big platter nachos-style; the aroma wafts around the table, triggering the over-eating gene of seemingly everyone except vegetarians and vegans. A sharp knife is usually jabbed into the heart of the mountainous dish, the heft of the ingredients suspending the utensil in mid-air. The knife is used to slice gooey wedges of the dish that’s served communally often with beers or margaritas.
The botana characterizes the difference between a traditional Detroit Mexican restaurant and a traditional Mexican restaurant, which southwest Detroit also contains. Those restaurants do not serve botanas because it’s as foreign to them as a slider. Luckily, both camps co-exist and thrive.
“Oh, man, how many late night botanas have I had after a Wings or Tigers game? It’d be like trying to count how many beers I’ve drank in my life,” said Ed Shane, 30, of Wyandotte. Shane has cousins in Windsor. Since he was a teenager, it’s been a tradition for him and his Canadian relatives to end a night of downtown Detroit fun with a visit to one of the Mexican restaurants just a few blocks from the Ambassador Bridge, the span that links the two nations.
Over an average week, Armando’s Mexican Cuisine on West Vernor, the main business strip of southwest Detroit, sells about 400 botanas, said Cecilia Hernandez, whose family owns the restaurant. There’s at least a dozen Mexican restaurants in the area that sell the dish; several report similar sales figures, putting a rough estimate of botanas sold weekly in the thousands in southwest Detroit alone.
Botanas have made their way outside the city limits, too. For decades now, many Mexican restaurants in the suburbs have offered the dish.
Born on Vernor
The man who claims to have invented the Detroit botana is Armando Galan, 76, who first opened a Mexican restaurant on West Vernor in 1967. The restaurant is the aforementioned Armando’s, which is near Clark Park. He sold that business and later opened Los Galanes on Bagley, which is now owned by his son James.
“I invented the botana in 1975,” Armando Galan said in a phone interview from his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “You have to keep to thinking of new things to offer. And so, you know, I saw many people like the coney dog and the Canadians told me aboutpoutine.” For the uninitiated: The coney dog is a natural-casing hot dog topped with beanless chili, mustard and chopped onions. Poutine is a Canadian dish made with french fries topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds.
“And so, I thought, well, OK, people like chili and cheese and our chorizo— we make our own chorizo — is way better than the stuff you get on a coney island. So, I start to advertise this thing called botana and there you have it,” Galan said.
Botana may go international
Two national food writers who specialize in Mexican and Mexican-American cuisine confirm the chorizo-bombbotana is likely a Detroit phenomenon. Neither had heard of the dish.
“Wow, can you send me one in the mail? It’s sounds great,” said Gustavo Arellano, the Southern California-based author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”
Jeffrey Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, specializes in the diaspora of Mexican cuisine and has written several books on the subject, including “¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.”
“It’s not uncommon to see one cook come up with an invention and then have it catch with neighboring restaurants. Pretty soon people come to expect it,” Pilcher said, citing the ubiquitous nachos, which also started with one restaurant. “Sometimes they catch on, other times they stay local.”
Maybe the botana’s destiny will extend even further than the suburbs. Long after he got his botana inspiration from the coney dog and poutine, Galan is retired, but the 76-year-old admits he’s restless in his Puerto Vallarto digs.
“I’m thinking of opening a restaurant. I think the Mexicans are ready for a botana, and you know, there’s a lot of Canadian retirees down here.”
Sampling botanas around town
The Detroit botana has made it to various suburbs, but many of the restaurants in southwest Detroit offer the dish. However, since it is a Detroit invention, not all Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood have it on their menus. If the restaurant has the word “taqueria” in its title, that eatery may stick to traditional fare — though some taquerias have adapted and now offer botanas.
Armando’s Mexican Cuisine
4242 W. Vernor. (313) 554-0666
3362 Bagley. (313) 554-4444
3409 Bagley. (313) 843-0179
3457 Bagley. (313) 841-5811
Señor López Mexican Restaurant
7146 Michigan. (313) 551-0685
Mexican Village Restaurant
2600 Bagley. (313) 237-0333
Taqueria Mi Pueblo
7278 Dix. (313) 841-3315
How to make a botana
Courtesy of Armando’s Mexican Cuisine
½ bag of corn chips, you can make your own or go to Mexican grocery to be more authentic
2 ½ cups of refried pinto beans (see other recipe)
½ cup of chorizo sausage (see note)
1 to 2 cups of shredded Muenster cheese
1 large tomato, sliced into wedge
1 large green pepper sliced into thin strips
1 small Spanish onion sliced into thin strips
1 sliced avocado sliced into thin strips
1 large pickled jalapeno chopped into small bits
Note: Armando’s makes their own chorizo, but recommends getting fresh chorizo from Honey Bee or E&L Supermercado (supermarket) in Mexicantown.
Place chorizo in pan and cook thoroughly, then add to refried beans and mix in.
Take a 9-inch plate and fill bottom with corn chips.
Add the beans and chorizo mix on top of the chips.
Take the shredded cheese and cover it all. Put in oven, about 350 degrees, until cheese is melted. It should take just a few minutes.
Remove plate from oven and top with vegetables.
Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 810 calories; 41 g fat (14 g saturated fat; 46 percent calories from fat); 83 g carbohydrates; 60 mg cholesterol; 1,198 mg sodium; 32 g protein; 19 g fiber.
2 ½ cups of dry pinto beans
3 quarts water
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
2 tablespoons vegetable or pork lard
¼ cup water
Salt & white pepper to taste
Rinse beans in water and remove all small stones or bad beans.
Cook the beans in water, bring beans to a boil and then lower heat to simmer, covered, for about 2 hours. Cooking time may vary so check beans frequently. The beans are done when they are soft and the skin is just beginning to break open.
Strain the beans from the cooking water. Add lard, garlic, salt & pepper, and mash the beans in the pot. Add more water if necessary to keep them from getting too dried out. Makes 10 servings.
Per serving: 181 calories; 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 15 percent calories from fat); 30 g carbohydrates; 2 mg cholesterol; 237 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 11 g fiber.