Sunday, June 3, 2007

Northgate González Market: A Taste of Jalisco in Southcrest

It happened as soon as I published my Foodland entry at the end of April. All of a sudden people started asking me if I’d heard of this great Mexican market off the 805 called Northgate. Friends of mine got there before I was able to and touted it as the Whole Foods of Mexican markets. Well, all of this chatter of course made me more than a little curious. So, last weekend with little time to spare, unfortunately, I headed over with my friend Angela on a turbo-charged run through the place, loved it and returned during the week for a more complete experience.

Northgate is terrific, but comparing it to Whole Foods isn’t fair to either market. For one thing, Northgate doesn’t do organic, it’s not anywhere near as pricey (in fact, its prices are very reasonable) and it isn’t exactly gourmet. But in one major respect, the comparison is understandable. The produce section at Northgate is remarkable—full of variety with gorgeous offerings and the setup and lighting actually looks kind of like Whole Foods.

The Northgate González Market in Southcrest is the only San Diego branch so far in a chain of 26. According to store manager Benito Medellin, the family-owned business is planning on expanding in San Diego but the location of the next market hasn’t been selected yet. Even this place is just celebrating its first anniversary here on June 22. The other markets are in L.A. and Orange Counties. The first store opened in 1980 in Anaheim, the vision of Don Miguel González Jiménez and his older sons, who immigrated here from Jalostotitlán, Jalisco. The “Northgate” name was the original store name before the family took it over and it stuck. Gradually, the family bought more stores, with the various González siblings running them.

That’s the history. The San Diego store is a bustling place. On the Saturday morning Angela and I visited, you couldn’t even get to the meat counter to see what was there, it was 10 deep at least in shoppers across the entire back of the store, where there are counters for beef, pork and lamb, poultry and seafood. You want fresh pulpo (octopus)? They’ve got it, along with whole, cleaned tilapia and snapper, fillets of lots of other fish and tons of shrimp—all very fresh looking.

In the meat department, no part of the animal goes to waste—pork lard, snouts and hocks sit side by side with beef tongue, lips, cheeks, liver and guts. You’ll find tripe and chicken feet—as well as the regular cuts of these animals. And, if you need a bit of an assist, there is a wide selection of meats already marinated and ready for the grill.

All that is great, but to me, there are two really compelling reasons to go to Northgate: the produce and the salad counter.

The produce is beautiful. In anticipation of a Sunday lunch party I was throwing, I went with a list of ingredients I needed. The avocados were just right, about to be perfectly ripe the following day when I needed them for a salsa with cilantro, white onions and limon juice. The limons—tiny key limes—also were lovely.

I bought utterly flawless tomatoes on the vine, a small watermelon, a pineapple, mango, peaches and apricots. Then, I took a breath and saw that among the beautiful rainbow of chiles, vibrant yellow squash blossoms, paddles and prepared bags of fresh nopales, bulbous Mexican onions, now familiar xoconoxtles and barrels of jamaica and tamarindo were some products I hadn’t seen before.

The first were in the chayote family. Little white chayotes and prickly chayotes. I bought both, more curious about the latter, of course. To be honest, when I got home and started researching prickly chayote to figure out how to use it without becoming horribly disfigured, I was at a loss.

I could find nothing online that explained how exactly to deal with the blanket of tiny golden needles. So, this evening after thinking about it, I decided to boil it whole for 15 minutes, then don some heavy dishwashing gloves and peel it. It worked. I got a smooth, spring green squash ready for … what? Easiest is best so I sliced it into strips and placed them in a bowl, tossing them with thin slices of red onion, minced garlic, olive oil, freshly grated dry Sonoma Jack and salt and pepper. Then I spread the mixture in a baking dish and baked it at 375 for about 20 minutes or so. Lovely. Was it worth the pinpricks? Maybe not. It didn’t taste much different from a smooth chayote, but it was a bit of an adventure.

The second discovery I made was fresh garbanzo beans. These lovely little gems are enclosed in a thin papery pod. I bought a couple of handfuls of them, since I had no idea what to do with them. It turns out they are the essence of cheap thrills. Think edamame. First off, you can eat them raw. Just push in the pod and out pops the green bean, which tastes very similar to a fresh pea out of the pod. Snack on them, add them to a salad. Online you can find recipes for fresh chickpea hummus and salsa. I didn’t try these because I didn’t buy enough, but here’s a salsa recipe from supplier Califresh of California:

Fresh Chickpea Salsa

2 Cups Chickpeas - Cooked and Cooled

1 Clove Garlic

1/2 Cup Fresh Cilantro Leaves

1 Jalapeno Pepper- seeds removed finely diced

1 Large Tomato - chopped

3-6 Green Onions - finely chopped

Juice of 1 Lime

Salt and Pepper to taste

Place chickpeas, garlic and cilantro in blender or food processor and blend just until coarsely chopped. Scrape into a medium sized bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir - season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve as a dip with tortilla chips or as a garnish over grilled chicken, beef or fish.

You can also roast them. It’s quick and the results really are like edamame. Spray a skillet with non-stick cooking spray or a little olive oil. Add a single layer of garbanzos in the pod, then add just a teaspoon or so of water. Cover and cook on medium/high heat for about five minutes, shaking the skillet from side to side periodically. They should smoke a little and the pods will turn dark on the bottom. That’s it. Slip them into a bowl and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt. Then, just like edamame, bite the bean out of the pod and discard the pod. They’re delicious and will surprise your guests. And, the great thing is that these are in season from May through October, so you should find them at Northgate fairly easily for the next several months.

Alongside the produce section is another great find, the Palapa station. Northgate prepares fresh salsas, guacamole, pico de gallo, nopales salad and, my favorite, a variety of ceviches. I bought small amounts of several and each was better than the one before. There’s the ceviche de pescado with catfish fillet—chopped fish, tomatoes, olives, cucumber, cilantro and lime juice. It’s got the tartness of the lime and saltiness of the olives and simply a wonderful fresh fish flavor. The ceviche de camaron (shrimp)—chopped shrimp, tomatoes and cilantro with lime—has a simple but profound shrimp taste. The ceviche de camaron con pulpo y chile was my favorite. Smooth shrimp, chewy octopus and a bit of heat from the green chile was marvelous. I also tried the aguachile verde shrimp, a dish of whole shrimp marinated in a spicy verde sauce. Very good, particularly in a fresh warm corn tortilla. I didn’t enjoy the ensalada de nopales as much as Foodland’s. It needed more seasoning and I missed the addition of queso fresco. The salsas are all delicious and the pico de gallo is a perfect combination of flavors and a real deal. If you don’t have the time to chop up veggies, buy a container and enjoy with tortilla chips.

Near the produce section is the Pasteleria, or bakery. They have flat cema breads, a variety of cakes, gelatina de leche, rice pudding, buñelos and an amazing flan. You can buy a whole flan or by the slice. It’s simply divine in both texture and flavor.

The Panaderia is an entire wall of pan dulce, hot bolillos (football-shaped rolls, great for sandwiches), bisquetes, churros and other sweets. Shopper Sergio Beszeditz helped me distinguish between the various pink-, yellow- and brown-topped pastries.

The big, thick cookies were “polvorones” (powder), so named because they crumble almost at the touch. The conchas on the other hand are big and puffy with a colorful crumbly topping. Inside they’re almost like slightly sweet doughnuts in texture. There were some crescent-shaped pastries, but don’t assume they're croissants—these are dense, solid breads that break apart, not tear.

On the opposite side of the store are more prepared foods along with the tortilleria. So, yes, you can get freshly made corn tortillas, chips, tostados and masa fina. Then get ready for an inundation of pollo asado, a wonderful butterflied roast chicken with overtones of chile; surprisingly delicious moronga (pork blood sausage); carnitas; costilla de puerco (pork ribs); buches (pork stomach); pupusa de chicharron or de queso, a very greasy pancake-like item stuffed with pork crackling or cheese; and other completely unhealthy but probably delicious foods like fried chicken and pizza.

On the way to the checkout, I found a stack of containers filled with some unidentifiable vibrantly red ingredient. They glistened under the fluorescent lights and I was pulled in. The label said they were chamoyada de mango—dried mangos with chile. Okay, they looked interesting and they are, but kind of chewy and not really snackable. One of my tasting partners had a great idea for them, however—cut them into small pieces and serve them on cheese and crackers as an appetizer. I liked it and am passing that onto you as something unique to serve with drinks.

As usual, there’s a lot more to see and taste. I’m planning on returning for more garbanzos and ceviche. And, what makes Northgate especially tempting is its location. Take the 805 to 43rd St. and the freeway exit drops you right in front of the store’s driveway.

Northgate González Market is located at 1410 S. 43rd St.

Have some thoughts about Northgate González Market or other ethnic 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:

Print Page