As is the case with most good ethnic food in Ann Arbor, Chela’s sits in a nondescript strip mall at the corner of Liberty and Maple located next to a liquor store. Inside are a few small tables, a TV playing Mexican soccer in Spanish, and a waft of grilled meats in the air – this is how a taco joint should be. The first thing I look for in a taco joint is a grill with live coals – that is the only way to get tender, juicy bits of chopped steak with just the right amount of charred bits – no luck so far in finding this anywhere in the area. As a result, I know the carne asada is going to be a step below excellent, so I opt for three tacos – carne asada, al pastor, and barbacoa – all with onions & cilantro and a hunk of avocado.
The problem with cooking steak on a griddle and then leaving it in a warming pan (the process that a majority of taqueries do for their carne asada) is twofold: 1) the griddle isn’t hot enough to get that slightly charred crust that makes beef delicious and 2) by not grilling the steak to order, it sits in a warming tray and loses all of it’s juices. So the carne asada at Chela’s was not outstanding and I will likely say the same about every carne asada taco I have outside of one made with meat grilled over open coals or a live flame of some kind.
The al pastor was much more serviceable, though not nearly on the same level as al pastor on the spit like you’ll find at Taqueria del Rey. But it more than hits the spot when I get a taco craving.
The barbacoa was the highlight of the trip – the slow-roasted shredded beef had the right amount of heat from the chiles and was tender and juicy.
I did not see any salsas on the tables, so I did have to ask for their salsas and was given too small containers. I tend to go a little heavy on the salsa so I prefer how most taquerias will have giant bottles sitting around to use. In any event, the two salsas – one bright green tomatilla/jalepeno, and another red, roasted, & smoky – were pretty standard, I preferred the spicier red one (made with tomatoes and chile de arbols is my guess).
Just down the road from Chela’s is Taco King, located inside the Tienda La Libertad grocery store – an excellent source for latin ingredients that you might not find at Meijer or Kroger.
The menu at Taco King is very similar to that of Chela’s, both include carne asada, pollo asada, al pastor, chorizo, a veggie option, but Taco King also offers lengua (beef tongue, not as bad as it sounds) and lamb. I was most intrigued by the lamb so I went with al pastor & lamb on this trip.
The al pastor is about as good as you can hope for from non-spit roasted al pastor. The marinade of dried chiles and citrus juice really comes through and the meat is grilled to just the right texture. The lamb turned out to be sort of a lamb version of barbacoa – shredded lamb braised in a mildly spicy chile broth. I liked it, but Mrs. T who is not a huge fan of lamb, did not like it. It did have that gamey lamb taste, so if you are not a fan of lamb, I would avoid it.
The final verdict on both of these places is that they're good, not great. I definitely enjoyed the barbacoa at Chela's and al pastor at Taco King if I was picking favorites.
Other taco joints in AA that are worth visiting include TMAZ Taqueria on Packard near Platt and La Fiesta on Packard near Carpenter.
Ann Arbor, MI
Chela's693 S Maple Rd
Ann Arbor, MI
2231 W. Liberty St.
Ann Arbor, MI