South of the (Brooklyn) Border
I was reared in the Connecticut suburbs — where going out for Mexican meant flaccid fajitas and blue margaritas at a strip mall — but since then I’ve listened to enough transplanted Californians wax rhapsodic about gas station gorditos and transcendent taco trucks to have concluded that the quality of a Mexican joint tends to be inversely proportional to the kitchen’s size and directly proportional to its proximity to sand and salt water. Still, even so — why should SoCal corner the market? After all, there are plenty of Mexicans and dozens of miles of waterfront right here in New York City. To support this hypothesis, I offer La Canasta, an unassuming — but unimpeachably delicious — outpost of south of the border comfort food which happens to be just steps from the boardwalk of one of the Big Apple’s most bustling beach communities.
No, not that boardwalk. To get to La Canasta you’ve got to keep cruising, past the Wonder Wheel and the weenies of Coney Island and over the Verazzano bridge to South Beach, on the city’s southernmost borough: Staten Island. It’s worth the trek. Despite Staten Island’s Goodfellas reputation, the borough has grown steadily more international in the past two decades and now hosts thriving South Asian and Central and South American enclaves. More than 11,000 Mexicans live on the island, with the largest concentration in the north, making that shore the city’s third largest Mexican neighborhood after Washington Heights and Sunset Park. That also makes it, of course, one of the city’s best destinations for simple, authentic Mexican food.
Set on Sand Lane a few blocks from the water’s edge, at the corner of a strip of stucco storefronts next to an overgrown lot and a shuttered arcade called Beachland Amusements, La Canasta does brisk business from 6am to 11pm every day as a bakery, grocery, and cafe serving a motley assortment of families, students, and day laborers. Handwritten signs taped in the front window tout daily specials — a different hearty guisada del dia (stew) five days a week, plus homemade tamales and carnitas on los fines de semana. (The first time I visited was a Sunday morning, when the place was filled with families and every one of their plates was littered with masa crumbs and corn husks.) Inside, card tables with folding chairs clutter the room, flanked by walls of sundries like La Morena chipotles and kaleidoscopic refrigerator cases glowing with soda cans emblazoned with onapometic names like Thirstee and Boing. The sounds of clanking pots and a griddle getting scraped down drifts from the kitchen. Diners nibble on sunflower seeds from a miniature mojajetes at each table and hoot agreeably with telenovelas that blare from a wall-mounted television near the register.
The options for breakfast, lunch, or dinner are predictable but uniformly appealing, like pepper and tomato flecked huevos a la Mexicana or con chorizo; an assortment of tortas stuffed with everything from pollo (chicken) and al pastor (marinated pork) to longaniza (spicy sausage); an array of fresh soft corn tortilla tacos whose toppings include standbys like bistek and carnitas (fried pork) to lengua (tongue) and suadero; hot, earthy sopes, or masa pancakes, served thinner than customary and straight from the griddle, sprinkled with smoky chicken or chunks of chile-marinated steak, shreds of lettuce and cotija cheese; chilaquiles, and sincronizadas — pressed sandwiches of flour tortilla and cheese that most American would call quesadillas.
At La Canasta, however, quesadillas are another matter entirely. There is something to love in everything I’ve eaten there, but it is two quesadilla specials that really make me swoon, and which have plagued my cravings ever since. Part of their beauty owes to their elemental form — just a single tortilla, heated on the grill till it crisp and ever-so-slightly puffy, then half-lined with a filling of your choice, folded into a neat half moon, scattered with lettuce and a few crumbs of fresh white cheese, and placed back on the heat for a moment more to melt and crisp. On each occasion that I’ve visited, the special fillings have included flor de calabaza (squash blossom) and chicharron prensado (a slice of pressed, fried, pork skins) — and eaten side by side the two make a perfectly balanced study in contrasts, one bright and succulent and sweetly vegetal and the other, quite simply, a Frankenstein’s monster of fat and salt and voluptuous porcine deliciousness.
Before coming to La Canasta, I’d never had chicharron prensado, in fact, I’d never even heard of it — but like Eve with her apple, everything is different now. A few google searches, a little flickr browsing, and a few clumsy spanish translations later, I’ve started to get a sense of just what I’ve been missing. (Still, further — ahem — first hand research is needed. Stay tuned to this space for continued coverage of chicharron prensado and its international cousins.) But meantime, get over the bridge and try it for yourself. With the first bite the tortilla will crunch and shreds of salty pork and spicy chile grease will pool with the cool, creamy cheese; with the last bite, you’ll look down to see your plate covered with shimmering orange droplets of grease, your lap filled with wadded napkins, and your fingers slick. Your soul will be satisfied. You’ll be ready to hop a flight if that’s what it would take for another fix. But thank god, and Staten Island, and La Canasta — you won’t have to.
La Canasta Bakery Grocery Inc
272 Sand Lane, Staten Island, NY
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 3 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 4 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 7 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 8 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 9 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Strartup
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook