Friday, April 27, 2007

Foodland Mercado: La Vida Dulce in El Cajon


Being so close to the Mexican border, San Diegans have long had a natural affinity for Mexican and Latin food. But, authenticity hasn’t always been part of the experience, especially if all it embraces is Taco Bell, El Torito or Acapulco. I was stunned when I moved here from L.A. almost 20 years ago to find the offerings so bland and limited. That, however, has long since changed and both the restaurant scene and the markets embrace our region’s strong Hispanic roots.

It’s easy now to take for granted the selection of tomatillos, chayote squash, papayas and half a dozen different fresh chiles in Henry’s or even big supermarket chains. But if you want real immersion on this side of the border, it’s available at Foodland Mercado. Last Sunday, I visited the El Cajon store with my friend Angela Nava and her mom Bertha. While the El Cajon store is their favorite, Dallo Enterprises, the company that owns Foodland, also operates two others, on Highland Ave. in National City and in San Diego on Federal Blvd. near Euclid Ave. They also own Eduardo’s in San Diego on National Ave. at 32nd St. and Hometown in Chula Vista on E. St. And, something that may surprise you. Dallo Enterprises owns the upscale Jonathan’s, Harvest Ranch and Orchard Market.

The Foodland in El Cajon is a bustling place. Along with a bountiful produce department and aisles filled with the usual supermarket fare, Foodland has a pasteleria, or bakery, that turns out sweet breads and pastries, a taqueria serving fresh hot foods, a tortilleria that makes corn tortillas daily and flour tortillas on Wednesdays, a cheese counter overflowing with wheels of queso fresco and queso panela and containers of cremas (sour cream), and a robust meat department. Piñatas hang en masse from the ceiling and festive Latin music completes the feeling that you could easily be shopping in a prosperous Mexican neighborhood.

What hit me first when I walked in was the sweet scent of the bakery. That fragrant melding of sugar and yeasty dough embraces you at the door and tugs you in. Long tables are filled with cakes and flat rounds of bread made with molasses called cema. I bought a loaf of cema con fibre, a whole wheat bread with an undertone of sweetness to it, delicious sliced and lightly toasted, topped with butter and honey. In bins across from the breads are the pan dulces, or sweet breads. Most of us are familiar with churros, the long fried doughnut-like pastries rolled in cinnamon sugar. Foodland has those, but there are also a variety of sweet rolls, nameless unfortunately. Some were frosted with coconut.

Others were thinly iced on top with vanilla or chocolate. Still another, called a bisquete, looks like a cross between a biscuit and a brioche. I bought one and had it for breakfast the next morning. A few minutes in the toaster oven brought it both warmth and a slight exterior crispness. Inside, folds of a yellow dough, like egg bread, peeled away in layers, soft and just a little sweet. Definitely something to return for.

Like many markets, Foodland has a deli case with prepared foods. Pre-chopped containers of cilantro seemed a little silly to Bertha, but nearby were containers filled with more promising products: both fish and shrimp ceviche, tuna salad with corn, ensalada de nopales (prickly pear cactus pads) and, naturally, a variety of salsas. Roja, verde, Mexicana and a surprising red salsa de tomatillo (tomatillos, with their papery husks, are decidedly green). I bought a container of the salsa Mexicana—basically a flavorful pico de gallo, sans the heat—and the ensalada de nopales.

For the salad, the nopales undergo a cooking process that includes pulling out sharp spines, peeling/scraping the pads of remaining nodes and boiling to get rid of the okra-like mucilagenous liquid (let's just be honest and call it slimy stuff). Once they're sliced, they look and taste like slightly sour al dente green beans. Then they're tossed with thin slices of red onion and crumbled queso fresco. Recipes I've seen also include olive oil, salt and pepper, of course, along with sliced green onions, diced radishes, cilantro, diced serrano chiles and dried oregano. If you're feeling adventurous, you can buy nopales at Foodland and try this. Grilling is also a popular technique and I'm told they're delicious with grilled meats. As for the salsa and salad, for days I enjoyed both, tucked inside corn tortillas from a package still warm when I picked it up at the tortilleria.

The tortilleria. This is authentic down to the vats of limewater in which the dry maize grain soaks to remove the outer hull before being ground into masa (if you want to get technical, the process is called nixtamalization). While corn tortillas are easy to make (buy a bag of masa and follow the recipe on the package) and taste so much better than commercially packaged tortillas, if you can’t make them yourself, buy them from a tortilleria. They’re a wondrous thing. And, the chips that follow are just as sublime. For decades I’ve been mad for the fat, paprika-laced chips from El Indio, but Foodland’s may just have displaced them. Lighter, less salty and less greasy, they still stand up to a thick, chunky salsa and complement the flavor. El Indio’s chips are assertive lead actors. Foodland’s are delicious ensemble players. The tortilleria also makes gorditas (thick corn tortillas), fried tostadas and buñuelos (flour tortillas fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar). And, if you’re motivated to make your own tortillas, Foodland sells aluminum tortilla presses and tortilla warmers as well as bags of masa.

Opposite the tortilleria in the back of the store are the cheese counter and meat department. In the cheese case are 12-pound wheels of queso fresco—mild, salty and crumbly—and wheels of queso panela, which is less salty and has less fat. Both have a texture similar to feta. Angela and I were curious about the queso enchilada, an aged, part-skim milk cheese coated in red chili powder.

We asked for samples, and agreed it was extremely salty. When you go, feel free to ask to taste the many cheeses they stock. You’ll also find large tins of olive oil, jugs of olives, pickled pig’s feet and other delicacies.

Surrounding the cheese counter are cases of fresh meat and poultry as well as a fish section. While some of the fish and shellfish looked frozen/defrosted, the meat was clearly fresh—honeycomb beef tripe for menudo, beef marrow guts, tongue, oxtails, large cuts of pork shoulder and pork feet. In another case were packages of fresh—not frozen—Cornish game hens. And stacked on a table nearby were three-pound packages of very white slabs of pork lard. Angela insisted I try the chicharonnes (pork cracklings), both plain and con carne, something I’d never had. I may never eat it again because it’s simply pure deep fried fat, but, oh, it proves how unfair life can be that something so delicious is so bad for you.

Once I got that out of my system, we headed over toward the produce section. On the way, I stopped to ogle the loose dried chiles, beans and tamarindo, a brown, pod-like legume often made into a drink, but also made into hard candies. In front of the dried products was a basket filled with piloncillo, unrefined Mexican brown sugar (the name refers to its cone shape).

You can substitute it for brown sugar in recipes. I found an intriguing recipe for pralines using piloncillo on gourmetsleuth.com:

Piloncillo Pralines

1 1/2 c. sugar
8 to 9 oz. piloncillo, softened and chopped
1/2 c. plus 2 tbl. whole milk
6 tbl. butter
1 1/2 c. pecan pieces, toasted
1/2 tsp. ground canela (cinnamon)
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Grease a 24-inch sheet of wax paper. Set it on several thickness of newspaper.

Combine all ingredients except the vanilla extract in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil slowly so that the piloncillo melts and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 238°F.

Add vanilla extract, remove the pan from the heat, and continue stirring as the candy cools. When the mixture becomes creamy and cloudy, and the pecans remain suspended while stirring, spoon the mixture onto the wax paper. You can make pralines of any size. Work quickly, before the candy hardens in the pan. The pralines set as they cool.

These are best the day they are made, but they will keep for several days if tightly covered. Use leftover pralines by crumbling them over ice cream. You can also pour the praline mixture into a pan and cut it like fudge.

The produce at Foodland is sparkling fresh. Of course, we found a wealth of chiles—deep green jalapeños, vibrant orange habaneros, anaheims perfect for stuffing with cheese and a variety I hadn’t seen before, manzanos.

These gorgeous round chiles take their name from their apple shape. Hot? Mild? I had no idea. Bertha said they could be either, depending on the color, which ranged from a light green to yellow to bright orange, and sometimes, just the individual chile. She prepares them by slicing them thinly and adding sliced onion, lemon or lime juice and salt. Marinate them overnight and enjoy them as a relish or add them to meat or poultry on the grill or in the saute pan. I bought about half a dozen and followed her directions (adding both lemon and lime). The chiles have the thick, firm consistency of a bell pepper and, as she said, some slices were full of fire while others were perfectly mild. I’m still working my way through the relish, but today I added cubed roma tomatoes and cubed avocado to make more of a salsa cruda (jicama or cucumber would be other good additions). I’ll probably top a grilled seabass fillet with it or just stuff it into a warm corn tortilla.

Another unfamiliar fruit I saw Bertha told me was a “tuna”—cactus fruit or prickly pear in English. She was right. And wrong. The store labeled them “xoconoixtle” and it turns out they are cactus fruit, but not the sweet tunas Bertha eats; instead a very sour variety often used for seasoning stews and salsa.

My friend Armando, a gallery owner who was raised in Mexico City but now lives and works in Rosarito, explained to me later that a buddy of his from Arrandes, near Tequila, slices them very thin and eats a slice after every sip of tequila instead of lime. It sounded interesting so I tried it. I loved the xoconotli (another spelling and pronounced “so-con-know-slee”); it has the texture of a ripe pear and the flavor of a Meyer lemon. However, it didn’t work for me as a tequila chaser because the tequila overwhelmed it. When I reported back to Armando, he pointed out that by the time the fruit gets up here, it’s lost some of its potency so it’s a better partner to tequila before it travels north. As a child, Armando spent a lot of time at the local markets with his mother and aunt and recalled a stew they made called caldo de olla, with vegetables and oxtail. In the last hour of cooking, sliced xoconotli would be added to provide a slightly acidic taste and help cut the fat.

The Navas wouldn’t let me leave Foodland without trying something from the taqueria, which got no argument from me. There were tacos, tortas and burritos to try, but Angela decided on sopes. It’s not unlike a small tostada, but instead of a flat tortilla, the sopes base is a very thick corn tortilla, almost tart-shaped in that the sides raise up about half an inch. They’re filled with beans, carne asada, shredded lettuce, cheese, crema and salsa. This is not date food. You pick it up and take a bite and whatever doesn’t go in the mouth slides down your face, your hands, your arms. In short, it can be a mess, but a delicious one.

Foodland Mercado is located at 1099 E. Main St. in El Cajon.

Have some thoughts about Foodland Mercado or other Latin markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: