Tucked between a meat market and a physical therapy clinic in Paul’s Discount Strip stands La Michoacana Taqueria, quite a find amidst a typical splattering of businesses in Iowa City. A step inside is a step out of the rush of the day and into a different kind of rush—very friendly bilingual staff hustling around the tables calling out numbers, somebody’s sizzling quesadilla passing on a plastic tray, the smell of Mexican rice from the kitchen.
Free from the traditional take on the Mexican restaurant in Iowa City—the 10-year-old in the booth being serenaded with Feliz Cumpleaños, a mariachi band blaring from overhead speakers, jumbo margarita slushies in four flavors—La Michoacana is an entirely simplified dining experience. In the back of the room is the ordering counter with a wall menu, and, more often than not, a full house with a stretch of customers from the register to the back tables.
There is nothing too fancy—sponge-painted brown walls, cafeteria style tables, chairs and plates, a gumball machine by the carry-out seating—but what they lack in fripperies they make up for in authenticity. “This is perfectly spiced on its own,” one customer says to his wife and son at their corner table, “I don’t know if I can even handle the sauces.” This is what keeps the place packed with regulars on their lunch breaks, couples on a night out and large families enjoying celebrations.
While there are 13 combination options with sides, all of the menu items can be ordered a-la-carte. Customers choose from a variety of Mexican staples—tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tortas, tostadas—filled or topped with one of 11 meat or fish options—or made vegetarian. All of the tacos are fantastic: a corn tortilla with onions and cilantro cradling pollo (chicken) or asada (steak) or fiery chorizo (Mexican sausage). They are small enough to be an afternoon snack and cheap enough ($1.50 each) to order a couple for a meal.
Another great option is the supreme quesadilla filled with cabeza (beef cheek). Two tortillas are crisped to perfection and sandwiched between them the cabeza is loose and tender mixed with melted cheese and toppings. For $6 and change, camarones tostada (shrimp tostada) and a Jarritos lime soda is a light but substantial lunch. Fresh shrimp is stacked on a crispy corn tortilla and adds a pleasant bite to the accompanying lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cilantro.
Be prepared for spice in every option at La Michoacana. In addition to the seasoning and cilantro that accompany each dish, the waiters present four different sauces to diners. Distinguished by color, there is mild, hot, superhot and habanero. Even the mild packs a punch. Compliment any of these meals with a freezing cold glass bottle of Coca-Cola to alleviate the heat.
The food isn’t dressed up and the servers won’t linger around the table with baskets of tortilla chips, but that’s hardly a price to pay for a speedy, well-sized meal with real Mexican flavor that knows no rival in Iowa City.
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