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New M Cantina a neighborhood treasure

Molly Abraham
The Detroit News

Nuevo Latino street food is the premise at this surprising little storefront in Dearborn. Don’t be misled by the modest surroundings. The restaurant, run by husband-and-wife team of Junior and Heidi Merino, is not a mom ‘n’ pop operation, but very professionally done with many stylish little touches and well-prepared fare.

Everything from the tortillas to the salsas — seven of them — is made in-house in the open kitchen and in the space behind a granite counter and its nine seats. Salads and fresh fruit drinks are prepared there, and that’s also where Junior Merino dishes up house-made ice creams and sorbets, some made from such unfamiliar tropical fruits as lucuma, guanabana (sour sop) and mamey and attractively presented with flourishes of freeze-dried fruit and sprigs of fresh mint.

Seating is at just a few tables and the counter, and the narrow space is lit by an array of variously shaped open-filiment light bulbs that add sparkle to the room. There are such touches as copper cups for water and variously shaped bowls, plates and wooden boards on which open-faced tacos and other dishes are served.

The menu of tortas, tacos, and tapas from the kitchen where Heidi works the burners is authentic and distinctive. Each dish is prepared to order, and ingredients are notably fresh. Service is friendly and helpful. Everyone on the small staff is knowledgeable about the menu and can point diners in the right direction.

Dishes I especially enjoyed were the fresh, cut-from-the-cob grilled corn, and corn may be had on the cob, as well. I also liked the marinated and grilled chicken torta sparked with slices of avocado and house spices, one of several sandwiches that also include roasted pork leg, thinly-sliced beef and a vegetable assortment of grilled eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and mushrooms.

The little open-face tacos, topped with crisp panko-dusted fish or marinated shrimp with lime and cilantro, or chili-marinated pork, are also appealing, as are the freshly-squeezed juices like the lavender lemonade, a special that day, that accompanied my lunch.

Breakfast tortas on sweet bread (conchas) for those who stop by for breakfast, and espresso, cappuccino and latte are other upscale touches. The Merinos have seemingly thought of everything. Even though there are no alcoholic beverages, I don’t think fans of Mexican cuisine are going to be disappointed.

After just about two months since opening its doors, M Cantina — the M for Mexico, where the Merinos are from, and also for Michigan State, where the building’s owner, Stephanie Villa, went to school — has been discovered by a lot of adventuresome diners.

It’s not often you walk into a small neighborhood restaurant and discover a gem, but this is definitely one of them.

M Cantina

13214 Michigan, Dearborn

Call: (313) 399-9117

Rating: ★★★

Hours: 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Tortas and salads $4-$8.50, sides $1.50-$4, tacos $8.50-$12, tapas $4-$12, desserts $4-$5

Liquor: No.

Noise level: Low

Parking: Street and rear lot

Wheelchair access: No barriers.

What the ratings mean

★ — routine ★★ — good ★★ 1/2 — very good

★★★ — excellent ★★★★ — outstanding