The big player in short-order Mexican sets up shop in a little trailer along Michigan Avenue. El Oasis, which has a second location inside a party store on the corner of Cedar Street and Miller Road, serves up tasty fare on the east end of town, rain or shine, sun or snow.
There are contenders for El Oasis’s mythic crown, though, and two of them can be found in Mexican grocery stores on the north side of Lansing.
Handy’s Mexican Market and Deli is just west of Old Town. The two-aisle grocery store is filled from floor to ceiling with spices, canned goods, tortillas and coolers filled with homemade salsa, jalapenos, soda and frozen meats and treats.
Up front you’ll find a mini-kitchen where tacos, tostadas, burritos and more are prepared for sale or cooked to order.
Handy’s is takeout only. While there are a couple of picnic tables on the side of the building, on rainy days like last weekend, we headed home after our order was rung up.
Tacos ($1.59) come in three choices: ground and shredded beef and chicken. Of the three, the shredded beef was the consensus favorite of our tasting group: It kept its flavor, was juicy and had a nice texture.
If Taco Bell meat filling (i.e. “ground beef”) occupies one end of a spectrum with nearly 30 ingredients, Handy’s ground beef falls in at the other end of such a spectrum — it was simple, without noticeable seasoning, and without much flavor. On the upside, I didn’t get the sense that I was eating Franken-meat. The chicken tacos were dry and a little bland as well.
The tacos came in a combo ($6.99) with beans and rice. The refried beans, with a touch of onion, kept their earthy flavor and rustic texture, a pleasant surprise compared to the liquid-y, over-seasoned pools that show up on many restaurant plates. We sensed the beef broth in the menudo wasn’t cooked long enough to develop the depth of flavor it needed.
The small nachos ($3.99) we tried were something most folks could throw together in five minutes at home: chips under refried beans, ground beef and mild cheddar with shredded lettuce and tomato.
However, those nachos did come with some of the best salsa in town — heavy on the jalape˝o with a fresh, spicy kick. Containers are sold in a back freezer; they’re worth making a trip to Handy’s.
The earlier you get to Handy’s the more options you’ll have. Enchiladas were not available by early evening, and breakfast burritos go fast.
A few blocks northeast you’ll find Supermercado La Estrellita, a more complete supermarket with a short order grill.
Although it’s not necessary, knowing a bit of Spanish helps here, and the set-up can be a bit confusing for first-time visitors. In the back by the butcher counter you’ll find a small order tablet. You write down what you want, tear off the order slip and hand it to one of the cooks.
We were thrilled to see a package of El Millegro brand corn tortillas taken off the shelf and popped open for our order of overstuffed tacos ($1.89).
La Estrellita offers a wide selection of meats: barbacoa, asada, pastor, carnitas, polo, chorizo and lengua. The tacos at La Estrellita haven’t experienced as much Midwestern fusion and come dressed simply with onion and cilantro.
Lime chunks come with meals and add a kick of acidity when squeezed into the mild salsa verde. We added avocados to the salsa and spooned it generously over our selection of tacos.
La Estrellita’s torta ($4.79) is the king of the menu. A blimp of a sandwich, it comes with a broad beef milanesa that overhangs the bread, onto which lettuce, pickled jalape˝os, queso fresco, fried beans and generous slices of avocado are piled. The torta is a meal unto itself, the kind of sandwich that could feed you all day long.
Both La Estrellita and Handy’s offer a full selection of drinks and sodas in their coolers, from Squirt in a twisted glass bottle to Malta, a sweet, stout, essentially unfermented beer. At Estrellita, you’ll also find a fountain with horchata, a cool, refreshing, sweet rice drink with a touch of cinnamon.
Both shops have plenty of pan dulce, too, although at La Estrellita the selections are fresher. On a Saturday afternoon, tray after tray of still-warm pastries — pink and tan sugared breads, sweet empanada and more — fill a pair of rolling racks.
Like El Oasis, La Estrellita puts to shame some full-service restaurants that shrilly market themselves as authentic — there’s much more to good Mexican than cumin-heavy ground beef or shredded chicken breast with cheese, lettuce and tomato.
If you want some good Mexican food, don’t be shy, there’s plenty to discover in this town — viva comer!
Handy┤s Mexican Market
424 W. Willow St., Lansing
9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
TO, P, $
Supermercado La Estrellita
2604 N. East St., Lansing
9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
TO, P,BW, $