Behind the chile-rimmed pint-size margaritas at Bonito Michoacán in Las Vegas’s Chinatown is an immigrant’s family story of survival and triumph. The restaurant (and its related outposts: the original Lindo Michoacán, which opened in 1991 on Desert Inn, and a second Lindo Michoacán in Henderson) pays tribute to the food its chef, Humberto Valenzuela, ate growing up in tradition-rich Turicato, Michoacán, six hours west of Mexico City. The name, which means “beautiful Michoacán,” honors the Barajas and Valenzuela families’ home, with its dry spring ”tierra caliente” season much like summers in Las Vegas, and the rainy season in the summer that changes the landscape into a lush forest with streams.
The interior, too, showcases art from Michoacán. Traditional Mexican masks from Tocuaro, Mexico, line one wall, while pottery — some clay, some colorful ceramic — from Capula, Mexico, decorates the windowsills. The restaurant’s cheerful interior sits beneath a wooden beam ceiling and pops with teals, oranges, mustards, reds, and pinks. Arched windows face out to the Strip, with the Palms looming nearby.
When he was 9, Valenzuela’s parents, Ninfa Barajas and Don Jesus Valenzuela Sr., sent him to Las Vegas to live with his grandparents, fearing for his life after drug cartels overran the city. “They were kidnapping kids,” Valenzuela says. Gangs would break into his house to wake Don Jesus, a doctor, to help someone who was shot. After moving to the United States in 1994, Ninfa followed two years later.
When his uncle Javier Barajas came to the United States in 1978, he thought he would be picking fruit in California, but — so the story goes — the bus let him out in Las Vegas instead. He started working in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, but didn’t like the burritos and enchiladas he found in the city. Barajas went to seminary school as a teenager in Turicato, where he cooked for the priests. He used those skills to open the original Lindo Michoacán in 1991. Now, each of the brothers and his sister has a location.
When Ninfa came to the United States, she worked at Barajas’ restaurant, and then she and the rest of the Valenzuela family decided to open their own location. Thus was born the original location of Bonito Michoacán, which opened at Jones Boulevard and Harmon Road in 1996. When the landlord raised the rent a few years later, the family decided to move to its current location on Decatur Boulevard near Twain Street.
That move wasn’t easy. The location housed four other restaurants before Bonito Michoacán and initially, everything seemed to go wrong — from the air conditioning not working on hot summer days to difficulty with acquiring permits through the city. Then Valenzuela Sr. decided to landscape the front of the restaurant and made an interesting discovery — dozens of boxes with statues of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, with his head pointed down were buried in the ground. “My grandma was saying that in Mexico, it is really bad luck,” he says. Valenzuela says that once the family removed the statues, their luck changed. Now one of the statues has a permanent home in the entryway to the restaurant, facing up, of course.
Valenzuela attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas before he became the chef at Bonito Michoacán in 2008. His menu reflects some of the nostalgic greatest hits from his family’s deep catalog of 150-plus recipes. While the food here is tailored toward an American audience, with rice and beans adorning many of the plates, some of the recipes have deep meaning for the family, and many come with stories of Turicato attached.
For example, Valenzuela uses a family recipe to make the mole Turicato style. Every day he cooks the dish in 25-gallon batches, which could be different depending on nuances in the ingredients. Diners should be able to taste all 13 ingredients, including the chile pasilla, chile guajillo, New Mexican peppers, pepita seeds, almonds, walnuts, bread, and Mexican chocolate.
He compares cooking mole to the film Like Water for Chocolate, where his emotions while making the dish spill into the final product. One day when his mother was mad at him, the mole came out very spicy: “She was yelling at me when I was making it; I think that’s why.”
Tia Esther, his grandfather’s sister, originally made camarones zarandeados (srandeados on the menu) for the family in Turicato. But when Valenzuela tried the original recipe for grilled shrimp dish found at Lindo Michoacan, the sauce wasn’t the consistency that he wanted, so he used his culinary training to make a smooth emulsion.
Steak al cognac, with its mushrooms, onions, sour cream, and cognac sauce, isn’t Mexican cuisine, but its influence comes from the French occupation of Mexico, and the dish has deep meaning for Valenzuela. “I was 6 years old in Mexico and I still remember my grandma cooking steak cognac in a most humble house,” he says. “It was probably difficult for her to find cognac.”
Consuelo Gutierrez de Barajas, Valenzuela’s grandmother, created the recipe for steak a la Coca-Cola “Mama Chelo” that combines chile and Coca-Cola, a favorite of the priests in Turicato. Dried papilla chiles, garlic, cloves, and, of course, Coca-Cola come together in the sauce poured over a New York strip steak.
Enchiladas Michoacánas is an ode to the street enchiladas in Turicato, with tortillas made in-house dipped in enchilada sauce and then griddled. “You could go out at 6 p.m. in my town, and women had these little stands making these enchiladas,” Valenzuela says. The restaurant’s version is inspired by those: Just cotija cheese, onions, and steak or chicken go inside.
Carnitas Michoacán, a specialty dish, features pork marinated in oranges and spices, then slow-cooked in copper pots from Santa Clara del Cobre.
Valenzuela feels that the success of the restaurant hinges on the family’s catalog of recipes. “They have worked for so long.”