The oil-slicked tacos al vapor available across Texas are predominantly of the northern Mexican style. These are small bites cooked in a metal steamer and available all day at many taquerias across the state. The Mexico City version of the dish, available only in the morning, is called tacos de canasta, and they’re still tough to find north of the border. These tacos are filled and folded, then splashed with heated, chile-infused oil as they’re being stacked in a plastic-lined, woven basket (canasta). The final step is covering the vessel to allow for steaming on the back of a bicycle en route to the vending location. It’s an elaborate, time-consuming process. But at a walk-up window inside an Irving beer store, just past the fantastical brews released by Martin House Brewing and the racks of cabernet, you’ll find an uncommon example of a taco de canasta. That’s where A. Molina (he didn’t want to share his full name) opened his taqueria, the simply named Taco Canasta, in early November.
The location came as an opportunity Molina couldn’t pass up. Though he hopes to open a chain of Mexican restaurants someday, he wanted to start small. Finding the right place proved tricky. Then he stumbled upon the space that would house Taco Canasta inside a Discount Beer & Wine store in a strip mall. As Molina says, the beer store owner was looking to lease its kitchen. Molina came across it and snatched it up. “I wanted to find something that would make more financial sense for me initially,” he says, “and then open the door to the next locations with the profit.” In a sense, this is a test kitchen.
Molina, 40, has worked in the restaurant industry all of his life, juggling a variety of roles. “I have all the skills in inventory, management, human resources, quality control, and, of course, cooking,” he says. But he’d always dreamed of opening his own restaurant. For Molina, Taco Canasta is an ode to childhood nostalgia. Growing up in Mexico City, he filled up on inexpensive tacos de canasta for breakfast on the way to school or for lunch from vendors who always set up on the same corner or outside a subway station. “They were always there. They were always delicious,” he remembers. “And when they’re done, they’re done,” he adds. Tacos de canasta are sold primarily on the street in Mexico; it’s rare to find them in a restaurant, so if your favorite vendor sells out for the day, you’re out of luck.
When Molina moved to Dallas twenty years ago, he was disappointed that he couldn’t find tacos de canasta in North Texas. Now that he’s able to make them for others, Molina says the experience provides a sense of satisfaction that “just hits your heart.”
Taco Canasta opened quietly; Molina didn’t take out any ads, and he waited a month to host a grand opening. He says he wanted the time to perfect his recipes, train his employees, and get all the business’s systems in place. Thanks to word of mouth, the taqueria soon amassed a loyal following. When Molina finally threw an opening celebration on the first Saturday in December, the turnout was “amazing” and “humongous,” he says. He sold more than 600 tacos de canasta that day. Now the business is putting out fantastic food, fresh from giant canastas that can each hold between 150 and 300 tacos. Peek through the ordering window, and you might get a glimpse of the baskets that cradle and steam tacos for thirty minutes to an hour. Their sight is reassuring. Molina isn’t taking shortcuts.
The vessels hold the small tacos made with fresh locally sourced tortillas (Molina wouldn’t give away the producer’s name). Each is filled with your choice of roughly mashed potatoes that reveal fluffy edges inside the tortilla, refried beans rich with lard, fine threads of beefy stewed deshebrada (shredded beef), meaty chicharrones, and juicy, vegetable-studded picadillo. The picadillo and the potatoes are my favorites. Get one of each and don’t share. The orders come with a suave salsa verde and a salsa roja that might have you coughing if you’re caught off guard by its spice. Pickled cabbage and onions are available as garnishes. They add a nice crunch and a sharp flavor.
Although Taco Canasta’s signature dish is worth the drive to Irving, it’s not the only shining selection offered by Molina and his team. The tacos dorados, made from tortillas pressed in-house, are packed with any of the fillings available for tacos de canastas, folded and deep-fried to the beautifully golden hue that gives them their name. Each is topped with crisp lettuce, crumbled queso fresco, and drizzles of cream. Molina is also proud of the mini tacos (labeled “tacos callejeros”), which also begin with house-made tortillas. The menu is rounded out with sandwiches, including tortas and pambazos (chile-soaked tortas), quesadillas, and even churros. And if you’re looking for a classic breakfast taco or burrito, you won’t leave disappointed.
For me, though, it’s all about the tacos de canasta. There’s something joyful about these tacos. They really do just hit your heart.