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Bistec tacos. [Photographs: Vincent Gragnani]

20100403lacanastastorefront2.JPGAs do many Southern Californians who relocate to New York, I once ignorantly lamented the dearth of Mexican food in this part of the country. But a quick look around and I found that my own borough is home to a rapidly growing population of more than 11,000 Mexican Americans. Most live in the North Shore neighborhoods of Port Richmond and Tomkinsville, but my first contact with Staten Island's Mexican American community was at La Canasta, a tiny corner grocery store and deli in South Beach, just two blocks from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk.

The Virgin of Guadalupe guards the doorway, flanked on one side by stacked packages of corn tortillas and on the other by bins of dried chilis in nearly a dozen varieties: serrano, pasilla, ancho, arbol, pulla, costeño, the list goes on. Young families and day workers eat at long banquet tables while watching news, fútbol or telanovelas on Univisión. Like most of Staten Island's Mexican American community, the owners of La Canasta are from Puebla, in Central Mexico.

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Long turned-off by Mexican-style chains that douse their meat with packaged, preservative-laden marinades, I immediately fell in love with the simplicity of the taco plates at La Canasta. My first order (and my continued favorite) was the bistec tacos: small, tender pieces of grilled steak, with chopped onions and cilantro on two small corn tortillas. Nothing more was needed, except perhaps the tomatillo salsa served on the side. For $6, one order includes three tacos.

Over the years, I've discovered a few more favorites at La Canasta, like the tacos al pastor (pictured at top)—pieces of slow-cooked seasoned pork, also served with onions and cilantro on corn tortillas. The pork includes tiny chunks of pineapple, which add not only a refreshing sweetness to the dish, but also an enzyme that tenderizes the proteins in the meat.

The quesadillas at La Canasta are more like large, crisp tacos than the Monterey Jack-stuffed flour tortillas that we've come to know. A large tortilla is folded, grilled and stuffed with a perfect balance of meat (your choice of chicken, carnitas, steak, chorizo, etc.), lettuce and queso cotija.

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Along with many other essentials of a Mexican kitchen, the queso cotija is available for sale. Crumbled and melted, the white cow's milk cheese makes a perfect addition to homemade chicken enchiladas.

This isn't the Baja-style Mexican food that I grew up with in California; no beer-battered fish tacos here. But it still feels a little like home: I can practice my Spanish with the owners, enjoy the taste of cilantro in freshly made salsa, and even pick up a six-pack of Tecate. (Not because the beer is one of my favorites, but because I've been to the tiny, dusty border town where it's brewed). All within the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

La Canasta Bakery Grocery Inc.

272 Sand Lane, Staten Island NY 10305 (map)
718-442-1633

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