Saturday, December 4, 2010

Las Palmas in Brookline

Three loaded tacos at $2 each. Background: Carne asada (chopped beef) being grilled.

A friend of mine lives in Brookline, a South Pittsburgh neighborhood just a few minutes from town through the Liberty Tubes. Last week we celebrated his 40th birthday, and ended up drinking wine until late, wondering where all the years have gone. In the Pittsburgh Winter, our talks gravitate toward memories of San Diego. My family lived there years ago, and so has he more recently. I have great memories of squeezing lime into tacos in that town in any one of a number of eateries.

The next morning, he's telling me about Las Palmas, a family-owned neighborhood market in Brookline. I get excited about things like this and he knows it. He's a gourmand like me, the person who in the 90s introduced me to such concepts as Sushi and the Fish Taco. And so at 9am, unable to sleep later, we trudged out the door to the shopping district of Brookline Boulevard. It's a wide, shop-lined thoroughfare with streaks of mostly occupied storefronts. I was bound to get my hands on the hangover cure du jour: lime, cilantro, tomatoes, marinated meats, beans and tortillas. But first we grabbed coffee at cozy Cannon Coffee on Brookline Boulevard, also my first visit there.

Perhaps I’m waxing too poetic, but fresh salsa, in its simplicity, could be no more perfect. It’s an alchemy that reminds me how simple a transformation can be. Chop, chop, and stir. No worries about precise temperatures or blending of roux at the right time so the sauce won't break, etc. If you don't know what I mean, grab a can of crushed tomatoes, a lime, sea salt, a clove of garlic, and a handful of fresh cilantro. Throw them in a blender and dip in a spoon. Add a jalapeno, or some other chile for heat. Onions for bite. You get it, right?

I walked into Las Palmas without expectation. My initial reactions were of surprise and delight, if mitigated by a throbbing hangover and chills from the damp cold outside. There are just a few aisles, packed to the hilt with food, leading to a stuffed butcher case in the back of the store. Along the right aisle is a single register with a slick, clean conveyor belt and polished stainless steel. A massive phone card wall, piƱatas hanging, fresh baked pastries, a produce display with prices that rival the cheapest in the Strip district, with no “marginal” produce. I grabbed a few limes, a bunch of cilantro, an onion, and two tomatoes. To the left of the aisle are rows of jars and cans: beans, chiles, salsas, sofrito, tomatoes; you name it, and several brands for each variety. I placed a can of refried black beans into my basket.

In the back of the store is a display case of prepared meats, some marinated. The three men cutting meat behind the counter were helpful and seemed somewhat amused when I ordered in Spanish. I restrained myself, asking only for a pound of al pastor pork @ $2.99/lb. Tacos al pastor (literally “shepherd style”) is a ubiquitous Mexican dish of pork shoulder cut into small chunks, marinated in oil, chile, spices and pineapple. Pineapple juice has an enzyme that tenderizes the meat. It's thought that this dish was influenced by the Lebanese-Mexican immigrants who brought their own marinated, roasted meat dish, Shawarma.

The basket was growing heavy, and my friend’s patience was wearing thin, so I grabbed some tortillas and cut the tour short, with all intentions of returning soon. I browse through markets like they are museums; reading labels and comparing prices and asking questions as though I were writing about it. Wait…this is something I have to share, I thought. This very moment was the inception of my blog. I love to explore food, and I love to share what I find with people I love. It's a common trait, especially in this town.

We departed Las Palmas in a car smelling of lime, garlic, chile and spilled coffee. In no time I was at work on the stove, frying the meat, scrambling eggs (modified al pastor for breakfast) adding the beans and stirring the salsa. I steamed a few tortillas over the meat and beans in the skillet, and voila!

Just days later, I learned that they grill tacos in the front of the store on the weekends. The selection includes carne asada (minced steak), carnitas (chopped pork), or chorizo for $1 each. Lomo (Ribeye) is $2. (Prices have been raised and tacos are now all $2/each.) You get two beautifully grilled corn tortillas, heaped with meat of your choice. You choose your toppings from a tidy buffet cart with avocado cream, lime wedges, pico de gallo, cilantro, salsa verde, salsa picante, onions, chopped chiles and a few more I fail to recall. Let this image speak for the food: Until 8pm, two men warming their hands over a grill, were serving an almost constant line of customers in damp 32 degree weather on a corner in Brookline. I went back for seconds as my fingers, damp with salsa and taco juices, were exhibiting early signs of frostbite.

My friend only eats one of the two shells. He detests excess carbs.
Mexican-owned restaurants and stores are steadily growing in number here in Pittsburgh. Behind each one is a group of proud owners. There’s a reason for that: pride, or in Spanish, orgullo. The passion we Americans have for eating Mexican food is always exceeded by those preparing it. These places are cultural enclaves, outposts and reminders of things far away that cannot be touched from the Pittsburgh Winter. Such is the case at Las Palmas. It's a sparkling clean Supermercado y Carniceria, full of pride and flavor. It's one of many international places, that both welcomes and is welcomed in our city. It's in Pittsburgh; and that's what makes it so special.

Las Palmas Carniceria on Urbanspoon


  1. I love that you used the word "bodega"

    we could use more of them here. actually think it'd be a great hit.

    nothing beats good fresh mexican food.

  2. Anonymous12/09/2010

    Keep this blog coming! Thanks for looking out for the people who want good food!

  3. Is there a place like this near Lawrenceville or Bloomfield? I have tried Reynas but I feel they are more expensive than I can handle, perhaps from being a part of the Strip and its tourist appeal.

  4. Anonymous12/30/2010

    Reyna's is more than decent - their in-house made tortillas will always be #1 in my heart - but as far as the taco stand, nothing quite compares with Las Palmas. Living in Dormont, I live close enough to them now, but once I relocate I'm going to have to make special weekend trips to the stand to get my taco fix.

  5. It's official. They have raised the taco prices to $2, but that includes ribeye. Factoring in the condiment bar, that's still a steal around the 'burgh.

  6. Anonymous2/15/2012

    I went yesterday and burped up their tacos all day long. Gross!

    1. Sounds like you had too many! Try some pepcid complete. Adios.


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