Dig In! – Seeing void, Johnstown’s La Palma jumps in with authentic tacos and a lot more

Daniel Lopez, manager of La Palma Mexican Grill in Johnstown, with La Palma tacos
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Daniel Lopez, manager of La Palma Mexican Grill in Johnstown, with La Palma tacos

JOHNSTOWN – There are five entries under the tacos section on the menu at La Palma Mexican Grill, which opened here at 22 N. Market St. in April 2019. The menu has large dimensions, with the pages protected by plastic sheeting and their edges by ornate, crimped pieces of metal.

Fish tacos and shrimp tacos are listed, along with tacos having hard and soft shells, and featuring the traditional meats of chicken, ground beef and pork.

The top-selling tacos, according to the restaurant’s manager, Daniel Lopez, are tacos de carne asada. Served on a corn tortilla, the meats are made with special seasonings and marinades, and topped with lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream and a spicy sauce.

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“They are the traditional tacos in Mexico,” said Lopez, a native of Cuerámaro, a city of 25,000 in the north central part of Mexico. “A lot of people say they are street tacos.”

Tacos de carne asada can be ordered with steak, grilled chicken, carnitas — which is pulled pork — or sliced pork, known as al pastor. Other meat options include chorizo, a type of pork sausage; a chili-like option called adobada beef; Buffalo chicken; and barbacoa, which is typically made by slow-roasting parts of a cow’s head. Tacos de carne asada are priced at $3.85 each, or three for $10.50. A combo, for $14.50, has the three tacos served with sides of Spanish rice and refried beans.

“It’s exactly the flavor from Mexico,” Lopez said.

La Palma Mexican Grill is owned by a corporation controlled by Lopez’s father. They have about 30 restaurants, Lopez explained, but only one other shares the La Palma name. The sister restaurant is in Ohio, in a small town roughly between Columbus and Cleveland.

Lopez was dispatched to Johnstown about a year after the restaurant was launched. La Palma Mexican Grill was established because the family, returning to Ohio after visiting their restaurant in Montreal, passed through the area while hungry.

“We opened this because we stopped and tried to find Mexican food, and we saw nothing,” Lopez said. “We decided to open a restaurant.”

The restaurant has a liquor license and its manager said that many customers enjoy adult beverages with their meals.

Margaritas are priced at $6.50 for a regular size, $12.75 for a jumbo and $25 for a pitcher. Lopez favors using Corralejo-brand tequila, which is produced in his home state of Guanajuato.

La Palma Mexican Grill seats 65, using seven booths, three tables and four places at the counter. On some days, Lopez said, the to-go business exceeds the orders that are served in the dining room. Deliveries are made through DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub. The restaurant may employ its own deliverer over the winter, Lopez said.

Tony Possemato and Cassandra Allen of St. Johnsville sat next to each other in a booth in the restaurant on a recent Saturday afternoon. They were having an early dinner. Painted on the wall in black letters above their booth was “Viva Mexico,” along with the Mexican coat of arms featuring a golden eagle.

“We found this place two weeks ago and this is our second time back,” Possemato said as the couple munched on chips and salsa while waiting for Lopez to bring their dinners from the kitchen. They were sitting on the same side of the booth. “She’s from Mississippi and the food is very close to the Mexican we get down there. It’s very good.”

Tacos receive prominent placement on La Palma Mexican Grill’s menu, but they are outsold by other Mexico foods, according to Lopez, such as chimichangas and burritos. The kitchen prepares many tacos but also makes plenty of quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas and nachos.

Lopez said he enjoys living and working in Johnstown, even if it took many locals some time to learn that Mexican fare is very different from that of a certain U.S. commonwealth.

“We had that problem here in this place,” he said, smiling. “People were confusing this food with Puerto Rican food.”

Lopez made another comparison, this time about his surroundings. He grew up in Cuerámaro, a city with a population about three times as large as Johnstown’s figure of 8,200. But Cuerámaro is a small place when compared with the teeming metropolis of Mexico City, just as Johnstown seems a world apart from New York City.

“My town is quiet,” Lopez said, looking out a window at North Market Street, where no one stirred. “And this town is quiet. It’s very similar to my hometown.”

More: Dig In! Special Section – Eat up at these delicious local favorites

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