The first trip I ever made to Mexico in the summer of 2007 was unforgettable. To this day, I cannot imagine my culinary life before it. During my short six week stay, my senses were flooded by countless new tastes and aromas. The agua de jamaica, a deep wine-colored drink made out of rehydrated hibiscus flowers, was exotic. The prickly guanábana fruit with its indescribable luscious flavor left me wanting more, and the cheeses were glorious. They were white, fresh, and tangy—nothing like the orange-colored “Mexican” cheeses in the U.S.
Before it was even time for me to go, I knew that I was going to greatly miss these unique flavors that had already become so comfortable and familiar to me. For as much as I would have liked to have packed up the entire country and stuck it in my suitcase, I knew that was, of course, not an option. So, instead I opted to take back some temporary souvenirs to remind me of my wonderful experience. I stashed fresh pan dulce and candies from Puebla in my carry-on and put bags of jamaica flowers and tamarind pods in my larger suitcase. I wanted to bring back a guanábana oh so badly, but alas there is a thing called customs.
After my eyes had been opened to these exciting new ingredients, I began searching for them here in Pittsburgh. I looked high and low but found little more than some Jarritos’ soda and various bags of mysterious dried chile peppers. There was no queso Oaxaca, no Manila mangoes, and no chorizo. I wanted to recreate so many of the delicious dishes I had tried, but without some of the key ingredients it was nearly impossible.
Then about two years ago, my Mexican friend, Dulce, nonchalantly told me about the “tiendita mexicana,” or little Mexican store she liked to go to. “Wait of minute. I can buy sugarcane at this place?” “Sííí, maestra. Por supuesto.” She assured me that I would be able to find almost any Mexican ingredient I wanted there. Now, this was a place I had to check out. I went and sure enough I found banana leaves, tejocotes, fresh guavas, and big stalks of sugarcane. They even had Mexican (X-treme) hair gel and Suavitel fabric softener. It was unbelievable!
The little family-run grocery store is called Las Palmas. Since the opening of its first store in 2009, the family of five brothers, from the Mexican state of Toluca, has added four additional stores around various locations in the Pittsburgh area. Each store has a carnicería (butcher’s shop), a case of fresh cheese, and mounds of colorful produce. You can find Mexican chocolate, a variety of dried chile peppers, jamaica, cinnamon, comales, and even some Mexican candy. In addition, you can buy fantastic tasting authentic tacos right outside each of their stores. I am so grateful that such a gem exists in Pittsburgh!
Las Palmas Taquerías, Carnicerías y Supermercados LocationsStore #1 700 Brookline Blvd Pittsburgh, PA 15226 (724) 344-1131 9 AM-10 PM daily Store #2 326 Atwood St. Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (412) 682-1115 10:30 AM-9PM daily Store #3 *This is the store I usually go to. 675 W. Chestnut St. Washington, PA 15301 (724) 225-9046 9AM-10 PM daily Store #4 (Soon to be panadería) 1540 Beechview Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15216 (412) 388-0888 Store #5 1616 Broadway Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15216