Restaurant review: Get real at La Michoacana this Cinco de Mayo

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Hankering for more than a pre-packaged Mexican experience for Cinco de Mayo - or dinner? Then try the supermarket/restaurant complex called La Michoacana (10 combo-platter-transcending La Michoacanas dot Columbus; I'm reviewing the Morse Road branch). Sure, it's a little rough around the edges, but in its middle - where a big heart resides - La Michoacana is truer to its Mexican roots than the crap-tons of indistinguishable gringo-handholders out there.

Occupying a single biggish room to the left of the eponymous grocery store entrance, La Michoacana is casual to the point of sweat pants. Not exactly bare bones, it's got peach colored walls, a sorta faux-beach resort looking bar, booths with semi-goofy tropical flair and a sometimes loud jukebox that plays great conjunto tunes (which might be hilariously profane) - i.e. none of that "ai yai yai yai" hokiness here.

After ordering a Mexican beer, shot of tequila (like Hornitos) and/or an excellent Michelada (cerveza bloody Mary, $4) prepared with a spicy and lime-blasting house mix, you'll dig into the mixed blessing of free tortilla chip service. On the ho-hum side are the crunchers, unlikely to be recently fried; in the positive column are a roasted salsa plus a salsa del dia that, whether creamy or fruity, is guaranteed to heat you up. Try cooling off with some guacamole ($2.50) - chunky, fresh and limey, it's good stuff.

To continue snacking or appetizer-ing, target the killer tacos ($1.50 each; see special pull-out section) or handmade tamales ($1.50). More supple and moist than most models, the masa-bomb tamales (which properly use chicken like a condiment) come in either green or spicier red-sauced versions - both create smiles.

Also estupido cheap and terrific were the Sopes ($2.25). They're crisply fried, thick masa discs fragrant of toasted corn and piled-high with frijoles refritos, cheese, lettuce, crema and your meat of choice - go with the delicious barbacoa and/or carnitas.

If there's a more impressive in-your-face treatment of tilapia in town than the enormous Pescado a la Veracruzana ($14), I haven't had it. A ton of tender and juicy fish was darky, crisply pan-fried and swamped in a spicy and addictive sauce of cooked-down tomatoes, peppers, onions and mushrooms. Better-than-average Mexican rice and a "salad" (fanned-out sliced avocado and iceberg lettuce) helped extinguish the burns-so-good flames.

A likewise highly recommended beef version of that dish (both are served with good corn tortillas) is the Michoacan Special Bistek Lomo ($11). Plated with rice, rich refried beans and a take-notice wedge of sear-crusted queso fresco (salty Mexican cheese), I enjoyed it so much I didn't especially mind that the thinly sliced, flavorful meat wasn't thoroughly tender.

Weekends bring specials worth plan-ahead visits. On this shortlist is La Michoacana's intense Consomme ($10). That was a massive bowl of lime-kicked, salty and immensely rich goat broth strewn with hominy and smatterings of rice and unctuous meat.

Even better was arguably the best bowl of Pozole in town ($9 - another weekend special). Sunk in a flagrantly paprika-ed, complex broth were meaty pork rib bones and loads of hominy. As with the consomme, it's accompanied by add-ons (cilantro, onions, lime, lettuce) that let you customize the stew to your palate's content. Wherever those garnishes take you though, you'll be slurping something close to the vibrant heart of ain't-faking-it Mexico.

La Michoacana

2175 Morse Rd., Northeast side