From the moment you pull in, there is something endearingly unapologetic about the set-up. The converted house suffers gently from dilapidation; the menus are dog-eared (with corrections scrawled in the margins); it’s grab your own utensils from a set of plastic drawers; and Bandamax is generally blaring from the TV set.
All this is a good sign if you know how to read it properly, because the message is this: The food is so good here, we don’t have to give a damn about ambiance.
The counter at La Michoacana on High Street is usually manned by the owner, Jose Gaona, or his son, Edgar. You order here—whether you’re dining in or picking up to go—and grab a stool or a booth to wait. You’re in for a treat.
If it’s your first time in, you’re probably best off trying the tacos—they are the stalwarts of the kitchen. Filled with your choice of meat—favorites are carnitas (crispy pork), cabrito (habanero-spiced pork), and barbacoa des res (spicy shredded beef)—and finished one of two ways: “Mexican” style, with chopped onions and cilantro or “super” style with chopped onions, cilantro, cheese, sour cream, and lettuce, both $2.50 per taco.
The star of the ensemble is the corn tortilla; they are made fresh daily, one by one, with a hand operated tortilla press in the back of the kitchen. Soft, thick, and slightly stretchy, they give the taco exceptional structural integrity.
If you’re feeling adventurous, La Michoacana also offers up beef tongue and tripe tacos. The tripe is perfectly marinated and prepared—the snappy, earthy morsels pair well with the brightness of the onions and cilantro. Gaona explained his secret, saying “most people dry [the tripe pieces] out too much.”
Gaona speaks from experience; he’s been making food in Charlottesville for a long time—since 1988. He began his business in a trailer in the Southwood mobile home park when he first arrived here as a teenager. In the early ’90s Gaona expanded, purchasing a truck and selling tacos around town, at private functions, wherever he had the business. He named the truck “Taco Altododar,” a play on the Spanish “a todo dar,” which translates loosely to “fabulous.”
In 2008, Gaona sold the truck and moved into the East High Street location. He’ll have been there for six years in June. The space was recently renovated, in two stages over December and January, and the improvements are palpable. The establishment now features comfortable booths, separate restrooms, and a better layout, making dining in a much more viable option.
He still gets asked about the truck from time to time, he said with a shrug. He once worked a wedding “for a very rich man on a big farm” and made tacos for the guests until two in the morning.
As popular as the tacos are (and they deserve to be), the rest of the menu is equally enticing. The Enchiladas de Mole, enchiladas stuffed with a choice of chicken or beef, feature a sublime dark mole sauce, under a layer of melted cheese with a side of rice. The mole is unlike any I’ve had before—an ambrosial constitution of nuts, chili peppers, cinnamon and chocolate in perfect balance.
The $10 Burrito Michoacano is a crowd pleaser, stuffed with chicken, beef and cheese, covered with a generous scoop of beans (your choice of black or pinto), and finished with onions, cilantro, avocado, cheese, sour cream, and lettuce. With a side of rice, it’s a seriously generous plate of food.
The Torta Cubano, while tasty, is a little overwhelming. Layered with four types of meat, beans, cheese and avocado stuffed into a loaf of bread the size of a throw pillow, the flavors get a little cacophonous and the texture is sort of monotone.
When I asked him what he likes to eat on the menu, Gaona smiled and said, “Everything.”
Whether you’re in for a single taco or a full meal, the salsa bar is delicious, and affords some options for customization. The guacamole, which is more akin to an avocado sauce, has a silky mouth feel and does a great job of cutting some of the more vibrant flavor profiles. The red sauce is my personal favorite—spicy, but not wickedly hot, and smokey.
Regulars love the mixture of pickled carrots, onions, and jalepeño peppers that rests on counter. The tall bottle of habanera sauce, also on the counter, is labeled with a laughably poor drawing of skull and cross bones—but one would do well to look past the draftsmanship and heed the warning.
“It’s hot. I like it hot,” Gaona said, motioning to his nose. “It’s good for your sinuses.”
Drinks are limited to sodas or bottled drinks. Jarritos, a Mexican soda, comes in guava, fruit punch, grapefruit, pineapple, tamarind, and lime. They are sweet, and not quite as carbonated as their American cousins, but pair well with spicy dishes. The cooler also has Coca Colas with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, a draw for some.
Gaona started working in the kitchen when he was 12. He learned to cook from his mother, who owned two restaurants in Riva Palacio, a small town in the southeast corner of Michoacán, a mountainous Mexican state on the Pacific Ocean. The recipes at La Michoacana Deli are, not surprisingly, drawn from the region’s culinary history.
Despite the restaurants low profile, La Michoacana is almost always busy at the lunch hour. The crowd is a genuine Charlottesville cross section—college students brush shoulders with dusty landscape workers and suits from the Mall. Gaona has his regulars, and it’s clear both parties enjoy the recognition.—David Hawkins
La Michoacana Deli, located at 1138 E. High St., is closed on Mondays and accepts only cash. Parking in the front is limited, with more in the back. Catering is available. 409-9941