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


  1. ooh very close to me, i will have to give it a try. there are a lot of really well kept secrets in that neighborhood.

  2. those tacos sounds AMAZING! this is a great blog...I'll be using it for sure!

  3. Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go! This week. Must go. As always, thanks for turning me on to somewhere I've never been.

  4. The Dark Secrets of El-Costeno's

    I use to work here and so did my good friend, They hired us, Had me bussing tables, waiting, Greeting, playing janitor, Doing dish's, delivering food as a co-pilot, cleaning outside, Taking out garbage and all this jaz, My form of pay was some nacho's and cheese or a free taco every now and then, Their food is great I will give them that, but the treatment of their employes are much to be desired

    My friend was a driver, and he didn't get any reimbursement for the mileages he drove (Which according to the ICS you should be reimbursed for mileage)

    They always cursed at us calling us a piece of shit or lazy, when we where their best drivers and employees, all their others where ether people who came in smelling like Pot/weed, or always never showed up, so we pulled Double/triple shifts almost every day, for no extra pay (No overtime)

    They Do not pay Hourly, They pay in tips and delivery fee's only! and most of that ends up in your gas tank and you maybe have some funds left over for food

    They work you to the bone with no appreciation, and if your not back in a flash, they will spam your phone calling you saying WTF why aren't you back yet, get your piece of shit back here now, Hurry hurry, No matter if its rush hour or not they expect you to have teleportation technology in your car

    While My friend made some funds, I made none for my work except the rare 2-4 dollar table tips that I was told was alright for me to take from the table, then when I take them I'd get yelled at or mocked in Spanish, (Yes I went out and bought a Spanish book) They where talking trash and everything about me and my friend in Spanish behind our backs,

    These guys treat you like garbage , We recently quit and now they wont stop calling us or spamming our phones, calling from 2cell phones and a private number, leaving rude voice mails

    if you think all this is just a joke for good laughs, I challenge you to go into El-Costeno's take a paper towel and put some water on it and wipe the floor with it, your see the floor is filthy as hell

    Next dark secret

    They have cockroaches in the kitchen, Their tables hardly ever get cleaned up, I was like the only person who ever wiped their tables down, They rent the place Under the table, They pay under the table, and they argue and fight with customers when they call to complain about something not being correct or wanting a refund, My god don't ask mario for a refund, he'll rant your Ear off, I've heard him do it to a customer.

    I also have 4 Witness's to every statement I have said,

    Please be Weary of El-Costeno's behind the curtains.



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