Inside a 'modern day' taco shop: this week on The Green Room

May 19, 2016

When chef John Larson and his family moved from Chicago to Traverse City last spring, he soon realized that getting a table at a downtown restaurant was a bit difficult at times.

"There weren't enough restaurants," says Larson. "I noticed every single place was on a two-hour wait during the summer months."

That was good news for the entrepreneur from Chicago. 

Just over a year later, Mama Lu's is now open for business just in time for the busy summer months in Traverse City.

Mama Lu's, which is named for Larson's great-grandmother, has a stripped-down menu that has a singular focus on tacos. Larson says that approach comes from the direction he envisions the restaurant world going.

"I think by providing such a limited menu, we can control a lot of things and give you a better experience," says Larson.

Mama Lu's employee Leif Johnson, uses a hand-press to flatten fresh tortilla dough in advance of the expected lunch crowd.
Credit Dan Wanschura

All of the tortillas are made to order at Mama Lu's. Larson says it takes a lot of dedication and hard work to make fresh tortillas, but the payoff is worth it.

"They die by the second, these tortillas," he says. "It all about the freshness and being able to control what goes into it, and how moist they are and how far you cook them. Just having that total control over the finished product instead of just buying a prepackaged product."

The Carne Asada has been a popular taco in the opening days of the restaurant. Larson explains it's a spin on the "meat and potatoes" concept, with steak, peppers and is garnished with potato chips.

"Every single taco has a crunch component on it," says Larson. "You have the soft braise meat, the soft taco shell, and then you get that nice juxtaposing crunch to it,"

John Larson says it's all just part of the modern twist he's putting on his menu. He says the new sauces and different garnishes he's come up with, elevates the simple concept of a taco. 

"We elevate them in a modern way, and we present them in this modern setting that we've created."

Owner and Executive Chef John Larson, gets ready for another day at his new restaurant, Mama Lu's. It's what he calls a 'modern day' taco shop.
Credit Dan Wanschura