Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Cultural Crossroads of South Havana: Tacos de Canasta at El Costeño

When driving through Aurora I am always craning my neck to peer into every strip mall I pass trying to see if there is some new or overlooked restaurant advertising some sort of enticing cuisine having its origins in another country. And although this can create some reckless driving scenarios in the best case scenarios, in the past it has paid off, like being introduced to the Taco Vampiro in an empty lot on South Havana. The other day I was on this same strip of Havana with my wife, speeding off to some destination or other, lost in deep thought, or a daydream-- or more likely just lost-- when my wife blurted out: "Tacos de Canasta!"

Hearing the words "Tacos de Canasta", or better, having them yelled in your ear while speeding down a six-lane thoroughfare will inevitably result in spontaneous braking and veering, and this time proved to be no exception. Luckily I had sped out in front of the cluster of traffic from the last stoplight and so I had plenty of time to hit the brakes, cross three lanes of traffic and pull a U-turn before the oncoming cars were able to mow us down. I then had just enough time to cross the other three lanes and swerve into Stevo's Pizza and Ribs.

I pulled up next to Stevo's excellent Volkswagen bug complete with mohawk. Stevo's, for those of you that don't know, is a pizza joint on South Havana that among other things will deliver food from other restaurants (for a fee) and also will pay you $100 for you and friend to eat a pizza that doesn't look like it would be that hard to eat.

Maybe you have to eat the box

It wasn't Stevo and his pizzas that we were her for, however, but the tacos that were advertised on large banners outside. In fact we were not even greeted by Stevo (or the Stevo employee at the register), nor were we addressed in English. I'm not sure if we had the look of tacos in our eyes (we did) but it was a man behind a second register who adressed us-- in Spanish.

He immediately saw the confused look I wore (I always wear this look) and began to explain the half- American pizza, half-Mexican taco concept, which it turns out was not so much a concept as it was a necessity. In order to survive in this restaurant-killing economy, Stevo started sharing his restaurant space with our affable host who runs an entirely separate operation he calls El Costeño. "Even the Gabachos," he told us in Spanish with a smile as he nodded toward the man I am calling Stevo, "Need help these days."

And for the brief time we were in Stevo's it did seem like El Costeño was doing more than its share to keep Steveo's afloat. Not a single customer came in for ribs or pizzas, while several filed in and out with Mexican food in hand. The fact that the TV was even tuned in to a Spanish news station may be an indication that Stevo and his ribs are being overshadowed by the Mexican crowd.

This of course, in my mind, is what makes our country so great--not that an immigrant entrepreneur can outdo his American counterpart--but that one restaurant has survived only through uniting two different cuisines and cultures. What can be more American than that?

Outside of Stevo's was an image that sums up this idea of America best: the banner advertising the tacos de canasta sitting under an enormous American flag that was flying over a dealership selling Japanese cars.

But back to those tacos. Tacos de canasta (basket tacos) are a type of steamed taco not unlike another favorite of mine, al vapor; but unlike tacos al vapor which are oft-filled with steamed and shredded beef, tacos de canasta are known for their variety of fillings. Tacos de canasta are a very typical street food in Mexico City (hence the yelling from my wife) that I've never seen before in Denver (hence the swerving and sudden U-turn). They are usually sold from a plastic-and-towel-lined basket on the back of a bike, and are uniquely suited for this portable vending because they can be cooked at home and then continue to steam (and stay hot) in the basket. The result is a fall-apart soft tortilla, usually glistening with the oil and grease of its flavorful fillings. It can be a nice break from its heavier taco counterparts, and because they are prepared quite often I imagine in someone's home, they have a comforting homemade taste to them.

I've always assumed that this taco originated in the DF, whose crowded city streets seem made for tacos slung out of the back of bicycles. Actually, to be perfectly honest I've never thought about where tacos de canasta might be from until eating at El Costeño. Our host that day shared with us a plethora of unsolicited (yet interesting and useful) information about these tacos. Apparently they originated and still primarily come from a small town about an hour outside of Mexico City, San Vicente Xiloxochitla (say it: Chi-lo-chi-tla). He told us how thousands of tacos are meticulously prepared in this mountain town every night with vendors travelling as far as the capital city every day to hawk their goods at strategically placed, pre-determined regions of the city (that is, everywhere). And while he is actually a costeño, or coastal man, from Acapulco, he insisted that this was true. In fact he told us he fights about this with customers on a regular basis who come in with the idea that this taco was born in their native Mexico City. "Look it up on the internet", he told me, over and over.

I didn't search hard enough to get to the bottom of the debate, but I did verify what he told us about the first Sunday in December, where the Feria de Tacos de Canasta is held to celebrate the 80-year history this taco shares with San Vicente, where at least 50 percent of the people earn a living by selling this taco. At last year's feria, they gave away 100 thousand tacos to eight thousand people. And while the Feria de Tacos is now on near top of my bucket list, the only thing that I was wondering about after he was done talking to us was how well this costeño made tacos de canasta.

He's got the basket... good sign

We each got an order of five in order to sample all five fillings offered. The tacos came out in a matter of seconds (as they should) and were gleaming in grease (also as they should). We sidled up to the salsa bar which was pretty standard except for one thing: Guaje. Gauje, or huaje, are the seed pods of the acacia tree and are used all over Mexico to flavor salsas, moles and even as a garnish.

The guaje seed is sort of like a lima bean, and in my taco de mole added some interesting texture, but any flavor was lost in the intense and wonderful mole. The guaje was not bad, but one thing I love about tacos de canasta is the fact that they are baby-food soft, so anything that messes with that has to go.

The chorizo and papa that I tried next was equally as good. This classic blend of creamed potato mash with chunks of spicy chorizo sausage was faithfully executed and full of flavor.

My favorite had to be the taco de chicarron. Its no secret that fried pig skin is a favorite of mine, but all soft and oily with what I think was epazote-- it was divine. If Stevo would fill that pizza box with these tacos I wouldn't need a friend to get that hundred bucks.

It turns out that this costeño makes a fantastic taco de canasta. Each taco was brilliant, even one made with nothing more than refried beans, which I loved as an example of a taco at its pure, simple best.

My afternoon at El Costeño reinforced another of life's valuable lessons: reckless driving and spontaneity often reaps tasty rewards. I highly recommend a trip over to Aurora to sample these well-made and true-to-the-original versions of a Mexico City (and San Vicente Xiloxochitla) classic in this born-of-necessity pizza, rib and taco joint. And speaking of the bad economy, after you get warmed up on five tacos, that pizza-eating contest looks like easy money.

El Costeno on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 13, 2011

All-V's, LDP and Me: The Subs of All-Varieties

As I have alluded to before, if they ever made a movie about me (or more realistically if some pseudo-dramatic event in my life was shamelessly re-created for a television show in the tradition of casting actors that are much better looking than their real-life counterparts) I would insist that my role be cast by none other than the great LDP. I am of course referring to the under-appreciated talents, dreamy eyes and flowing locks of the man also known as Lou Diamond Phillips, who despite his perennial casting as Hollywood's favorite Chicano and/or Mexican is decidedly (half) Filipino (like me). When I first mentioned this in a post last year I also mentioned something about casting LDP with his classic Young-Guns-mullet look and these days, when my life allows time for little else than things related to two squirming babies, that Lou-do comes alarmingly close to representing my hair, as it has been over two months since I've been to the barber.

I mention this because on a truly special occasion a couple of weeks ago I was headed out of the house to do something besides visit the pediatrician, buy diapers or shop for groceries: I was headed to the barbershop. The Tonsorial Parlor (as mine is proudly named) might not seem like an exciting event for many people (those people don't have newborn twins), but even before my social life got somehow even more boring and reclusive than it was before my boys arrived, I always loved my trips to the barber-- and as it becomes a harder and harder to find real barbershops, I really do cherish my time there.

Next to Obrien's Tonsorial Parlor is All-Variety Subs. All-Vs is a greasy hole-in-the-wall that used to faithfully serve the populace of the former University of Colorado Medical campus before it moved East to Aurora. It is easy to miss tucked in between my Parlor and a nail-painting place. In fact even though I come here about once a month, I couldn't have even told you if All-Vs was still open or not; and since the medical school exodus must have taken with it most of their business, I was pleasantly surprised to still see it up and running.

There is nothing fancy (at all) about All-Vs and maybe nothing that would have you rushing across town to eat here, but from what I remembered, they made a solid sandwich and always stacked it high with whatever toppings you ordered. I ordered an old favorite of mine: the chicken and avocado sub with bacon.

I was disappointed right from the beginning. The chicken looked like it had been out all day and re-heated on the grill more than once. It tasted that way too: dry and rubbery on the inside, tough and crusty on the outside. Also the bread was starting to get stale. On the upside, there was an ample serving of avocado (there is at least a half avocado on this sub) and it was fresh; and bacon is bacon, so that was good. Still there isn't much upside when you start with stale bread and dry chicken. Sad and disappointing that an old standby like All-Vs was letting me down like this.

After leaving I got to thinking about why my sandwich was that bad. I checked the time because I had to be home soon. I was late as usual, it was already four thirty in the afternoon. I suppose stale bread and dry, re-heated chicken isn't unusual for going to a lunch place over two hours after the lunch rush ended-- especially when that lunch place has lost most of its business over the last few years. I vowed even with the little time I have left for myself lately, to return. I hate to hate on a place after only one visit.

I'm glad I returned. It was a quick stop on a weekday right at noon when my wife and I were passing by on our way to Target or some other baby-supply-having place. I was right about the lull left in place from the medical school move: when years ago there was a line out the door, now there was one lone diner in the far corner munching on some chips. No one else came in while we were ordering or waiting for our food.

This time I got the Avocado Gobbler sub, which is just like the chicken sub I had earlier but with turkey slices. It too came with a generous amount of fresh avocado and big chunks of bacon. Everything was fresh this time and I smashed down the overflowing toppings, cramming it in my mouth and absolutely devouring my half in the time it took me to walk back to the car. That is the All'V's I remember: copious use of fresh ingredients, good flavor combinations and good value (this sub is less than five bucks). The fact that the bread wasn't going stale was a bonus too.

What I also like about All-Vs are the old-school condiments on the sandwich counter. After they call your name but before they wrap your sub in sandwich paper, you have the choice of red wine vinegar, olive oil, parmesan, crushed red pepper, oregano, salt and black pepper. I sprinkled on some vinegar, parmesan and oregano on the Italian sausage and meatball sub we ordered before they wrapped it up to go. This sub made it to the car before I got my mouth around it. Satisfying, big chunks of meatballs and an entire Italian Sausage made up the majority of this sub; the former moist and homemade-tasting, the latter flavorful though not spicy in the least. All of it covered in a good marinara sauce and melted mozzarella.

Now keep in mind I am not necessarily endorsing that you drop everything and make for All-V with any sort of quickness, but I will say that this is great, albeit more or less forgotten little sub shop that I would venture to say most of the time still makes a worthy lunch. With the economy how it is and the fact that business is slower than ever at All-V's, I will continue to avoid the off hours in the future as (who can blame them) they stretch their bread-buying dollar further. That being said, if you too are feeling the effects of the economic downturn your dollar goes far here, and if you find yourself around Colorado and Eighth with a hankering for lunch, skip the rest of the chains you will find around there and give All-V's a try.

All-V's on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Taste of Home at Home: Lou Malnati's Deep Dish Pizza

A new theme seems to be recurring in my recent blog posts, and I apologize if it becomes a little redundant. Yes, I continue to be deeply and lovingly immersed in poop, breast milk, diapers and beautiful grunting, squirming babies. As duly noted in prior posts, my going-out-to-eat life has come to a temporary standstill, but that doesn't mean that when I have a few semi-lucid moments in between the eight daily feedings I have been attending to I won't try to write something about what I've been eating.

The other day a great thing happened to our household. I woke up from one of those rare stretches of sleep that lasted for more than two hours and came downstairs at the respectable hour of one in the afternoon. I opened the blinds to be greeted by another sun-shiny Colorado day and on the porch spied a pile of boxes. Among them was a box from none other than Lou Malnati's pizza of my native Chicagoland. I pinched myself and shook myself awake because the line between dreaming, sleep walking and being awake is fuzzy at best when you are caring for newborn twins. Once I was more or less fully aware I realized that in that box was a pie packed in dry ice from one of Chicago's greatest pizza joints.

It is not unusual for Chicagoans to ship their food around the country on dry ice. You can get everything from Italian beef and ribs to burgers and hot dogs. It is understandable because as I have mentioned before (in my search for a decent beef in this town) it is often very hard to get a proper Chicago-style meal anywhere outside of Chicago. And likely the hardest of all Chicago-style meals to re-create outside of Cook County is the deep dish (or stuffed) pizza. (Note on behalf of my friend Al: Deep dish is different than a stuffed pizza in that a stuffed has another layer of crust on top, where a deep dish is simply a thick stack of cheese and meat and sauce in a deep pan.)

The message on the box from our dear friends read: "Congratulations...! This is to keep up your strength!!" As we all know, there is really nothing like a deep dish sausage pizza for developing or maintaining strength-- and with newborn twins dictating my every last bit of my energy expenditure, I figured I would easily need two or three slices of deep dish fortification.

What's more, Lou and the crew were nice enough (you shouldn't have--really) to include the Nutrition Facts with the order. Each slice is considered a full serving so it's nice to know that with three slices I would be able to get 99% of my daily Saturated Fat needs along with almost 800 calories (e.g, pure strength). That saves a little room for the dessert cookie they sent as well.

Of course any time you are citing Nutrition Facts like these you can almost guarantee that the food will be good. Lou Malnati's serves a great deep dish pizza, and while I am decidedly non-committal as to my favorite Chicago-style pizza, this one is up there.

I turned on the oven, unwrapped the pizza and forty minutes later I had a steaming Lou Malnati's pizza on my counter. It really was that simple. The layers of this pizza are as follows from the bottom up: thick and crispy crust, dense mozzarella cheese and a disc of sausage all topped by a simple, chunky tomato sauce. The best part of course is the layer of sausage.

Being that every single square inch of surface area (π * d) is covered in sausage, every bite is full of sausage flavor. The sauce got a little watery what with the freezing I imagine, but still had that same light and fresh taste that balances the inch and a half of heavy cheese and sausage underneath. The crust was perfectly flaky and crispy. It was in the end a great pizza and not unlike being at Lou Malnati's itself.

Now properly fortified-- Chicago-style-- with goopy cheese, buttery crust and meaty sausage I was ready for whatever these boys had in store for me next --that is, if I could have only managed to get out of my chair. In fact in my excitement of eating such great pizza I went for that fourth piece, thus tipping the scales (literally) in the direction of sloth-like apathy. Lesson learned: The line between strength and somnolence is a fine one.

Whether like me you are from Chicago and miss the food there dearly, or if you've never had a real Chicago style pizza, visit Lou Malnati's site and place an order for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


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