From humble beginnings in Puebla, Mexico, living off the land without running water or electricity, Junior Merino became a high-flying mixologist in New York City known as The Liquid Chef, crafting cocktails for the likes of Oprah and Barack Obama as well as huge multinational brands while serving as an official ambassador of Mexican gastronomy and tourism.
Today, Merino runs M Cantina, perhaps the most ambitious Mexican restaurant in the Detroit area, where everything, including the 18 (!!!) varieties of house salsa are made from scratch. Merino’s cooking is hardly traditional, but his deep roots and upbringing inform M Cantina’s own brand of modern Nuevo Latino authenticity.
“My parents still do everything the traditional way,” Merino explains. “They don’t cook on a stove. They cook with wood, which is the original way of cooking salsas and everything. When I go back, I love that life. That life is pure. It’s simple. You don’t have all the headaches and envies and this and that. It’s all natural. You go to your land and harvest it and cook it. If you want beef, you kill a cow. Everything is so fresh. Because we didn’t have refrigeration, we had to cure the meats. So I learned all of that.”
It was a simple life until the age of 15, when Merino followed his uncles and brothers to New York City, smuggled over the border by coyotes who packed him like sardines with other men under a false floor of a truck, leaving them unable to move for 12 hours at a time.
That image of young Merino is made even more incredible when squared with the fact that 15 years later, Merino would present a dinner at the James Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, simultaneously displaying his triplet of skills as a renowned chef, mixologist, and sommelier — all while highlighting Mexican ingredients and wines.
In 2017, Merino and his wife and sous chef, Heidi, opened M Cantina in Dearborn, having moved to Michigan two years earlier to once again follow his brothers for a better life.
M Cantina and its inventive, chef-driven approach — akin to a nice restaurant in Mexico City with a contemporary pan-Latin perspective — was a hit with critics and locals alike, but Merino’s mixology skills couldn’t be fully appreciated. A liquor license proved elusive for the first four years of the restaurant’s existence.
M Cantina secured a liquor license in early 2021 and Merino quickly amassed an enormous collection of liquor, including more than 1,000 unique bottles of agave-based spirits as well as some prized whiskeys, now served in a two-story space that operates by reservation only.
Despite his achievements, Merino has never lost his connection to where he comes from, where his family still lives off the land like they did when he was a child three or four decades ago.
“What I am today is because of that part,” he says. “I’m a humble person because I know what it is to come from there.”
For more information and to make reservations, head to M Cantina’s website and follow @mcantina and @theliquidchef on Instagram for updates.