Tuesday, April 1, 2008

El Tigre and Mercado International 2000: Chula Vista’s Culinary Charms

After a childhood of seemingly interminable waiting for my mom in the parking lot of the Encino Gelson’s market, I never thought I’d say this—and she’ll certainly laugh—but some of my most enjoyable days are spent at the grocery store. And if you can find a buddy who enjoys it as much as you, well, how lucky is that? Well, I’m very lucky. Deb Schneider, a wonderful chef and author of Baja! Cooking on the Edge, has become a great pal and we recently spent a fun day roaming from Latin market to Latin market.

Our first stop was Northgate Gonzalez, which Deb hadn’t yet seen. Since I’ve already covered the various gems you can find there, I’ll just move on to our next stop. We headed down to Chula Vista to check out the new El Tigre on Third Ave., which neither of us had been to. Deb is a fan of the older market in Nestor and I’ve been to the one in Escondido, which seemed a bit tired to me. This was before the announcement that Northgate Gonzalez was taking over the El Tigre chain.

This new El Tigre is light and bright with wide aisles, but I actually thought it was so antiseptic it could be any supermarket in San Diego, except that this one happens to sell a lot of Latin American products. And, for some reason they weren’t fully stocked. The produce department, in particular, seemed to be crying out for more, more, more.

However, there were some happy surprises. Their fish department, for example, is filled with lovely fillets of catfish and red snapper, a variety of shrimp and an amazing display of octopus.

They sell campechana del mariscos, a seafood mix of octopus, calamari, fake crab and mussels used for Seven Seas Soup. You can find a good recipe for this in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. (It’s too long to print here.)

In that same part of the store is the bakery and you’ll find a beautiful display of pastries and bolillos (large sandwich rolls), very similar to what you’d find at Foodland or Northgate Gonzalez.

Pick up an elephant ear, those flaky sugary cookies made from puff pastry, and go over to the in-house coffee bar, D’Volada, for an espresso or latte—made with their own mix of Mexican and Colombian beans—or a calming cup of tea. Try a fresh brew of gorgeous chamomile buds.

On the opposite side of store, alongside the produce department, is an astounding array of dried chiles, corn, beans, lentils and nuts. There were at least a dozen varieties of dried chiles in huge bins. Unfortunately, no chipotles, which Deb needed for a recipe she was testing. Rounding out the selection of dried items, were rows upon rows of dried, packaged herbs, peppers, teas and the like in a rainbow of colors.

Going up and down the aisles, Deb and I found some interesting South American products. I took home a bag of maiz cuzco gigante—giant corn that’s meant for toasting in oil.

This isn’t exactly popcorn, but it does make for an interesting snack. Just heat up a teaspoon or so of vegetable oil in a skillet and add enough corn to cover the bottom of the skillet. Let ‘er rip over the heat, tossing frequently, until the corn kernels are golden brown. Then drain on a paper towel and top with salt or other seasonings. These are the perfect little nosh, but also are nice on a salad.

The giant corn wasn’t the only unexpected item. While heading toward the produce department, Deb and I found ourselves laughing at the display of statuary hovering over the frozen food aisle. Enough said.

Back on the streets, we headed out for the other El Tigre but somehow we got lost. Lucky us. As we drove down Third we noticed a little white market called Mercado International 2000. Since we weren’t making any progress finding the other El Tigre we returned to Third and satisfied our curiosity.

This was a wonderful find. Maybe I like my markets to feel more like a treasure hunt, but I loved Mercado International 2000. It’s small and kind of dark, but festive and packed with lots of interesting items.

One of the first things we did was scour the refrigerated section at the entrance. Deb pulled out a couple of cans of Pulque, hugely excited to see this in a San Diego store. I was game to try it and bought a can.

Pulque is fermented agave juice, not to be confused with beer and certainly not with tequila, which is distilled. While its origin is unknown, it’s been around Meso America as a traditional beverage at least since pre-Columbian days. In Aztec culture, drinking pulque was part of religious celebrations and limited to specific holidays for the masses. To make pulque, the sap of the agave plant—called aquamiel (honey water)—is extracted and fermented, reaching an alcohol content of between two and eight percent. Today, there are still pulquerias, where pulque is served, but it’s also canned, which is what I bought.

While I love sipping a good tequila añejo (old) or reposado (rested), the pulque didn’t move me. At all. The milky white liquid had a flat taste to me, almost like soapy water. I’m told that the canned pulque isn’t nearly as good as what you would get at a pulqueria, but even so, I don’t think I’d seek it out. What I could have tried, however, was to mix it with mango or pineapple juice to create a curado.

Mercado International 2000, like other Hispanic markets, has a wonderful tortilleria and it has bustling meat department with flags from Latin American countries hanging overhead.

I loved the panaderia, with its vast selection of pastries, including a conical puff pastry filled with cream that I bought and hugely enjoyed.

There were some wonderful items in the frozen food section. I bought empanada dough, which I’ll soon be experimenting with. And, I found a box of frozen arepas de choclo (sweet corn).

I had made these from scratch a few weeks before with my friend Debra so I thought I’d give these a try. Arepas are a flat cornmeal pancake, perfect for grilling, baking or frying, especially when stuffed with cheese. Debra and I fried them and made sandwiches with sliced queso fresco and then fried them again to get the cheese to melt a little. I thought I’d actually try these frozen ones for dessert, since they’re fairly taste neutral, and served them hot with dulce de leche ice cream. Next time I’ll stick with the cheese.

What was successful came from a box of achiote rojo, a sauce long associated with the Yucatan.

This is one of those must haves for the pantry. It’s a blend of Mexican spices—annatto seeds, cumin, ground oregano, allspice and ground ancho chile—that come together as a vibrant red-orange paste. Crumble this into a bowl and add some minced garlic, orange juice, a little vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste to create a thick liquid for a marinade. It’s perfect for chicken, shrimp or a fillet of fish like snapper or cod. My friends Armando and Paula slather it on turkey for both the oven and the grill, and claim it creates the most tender and tasty turkeys. Achiote isn't at all hot, but very fragrant and flavorful and you also wind up with a gorgeous dish.

Of course, you don’t need to buy a box of achiote. You can easily make it from scratch. Here’s a wonderful recipe from whatscooking.us for homemade achiote sauce with chicken legs:

Chicken legs with achiote sauce
Makes 6 servings
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 45-60 minutes
Cooking method: marinate, baking

For this recipe you will need:

1 TBSP annatto seeds

½ tsp cumin

½ tsp ground oregano

1 tsp whole allspice

2 TBSP ground chile ancho

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup vinegar

½ cup fresh orange juice

½ tsp olive oil

6 pieces chicken drumsticks and thighs

salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Dry-toast annatto seeds along with the rest of the spices in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until fragrant, around 2-3 minutes.
  2. Cool slightly and grind in a food grinder (I used my blender on high speed)
  3. In a large bowl whisk together spice mixture, garlic, vinegar, orange juice, and oil until well blended.
  4. Coat chicken pieces with salt and pepper and arrange in a baking dish.
  5. Add the annatto sauce and marinate overnight.
  6. Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C)
  7. Cover baking dish and bake for about 45-60 minutes. Chicken should be tender and fall right off the bone when tested with a fork.
  8. Serve with white rice and enjoy!

At Mercado 2000 International, I also found a marvelous variety of hot sauces, including Salsa Huichol, which certainly burns, but Deb swears is the best. And I got a delicious sweet/hot apricot sauce, called chamoy (in Mexico, typically pickled apricots or plums are the fruit base and are mixed with chile powder), which you can use to dress everything from pork rinds, or chicharrones, to fruit.

Finally, I was captivated by the many varieties of Mexican chocolates for sale. I’ve always bought Ibarra, but here I also found Don Gustavo, Casero and Moctexuma. I was a sucker for the handsome Moctexuma design and bought a box, which has turned out to be very good.

By now, three markets into our shopping spree, Deb and I were famished. It happens that Mercado International 2000 has a little taco shop alongside the parking lot. Serving a variety of tacos, torta, mulitas, tamales and other treats, it tempted us to try lunch. I ordered a lingua de res taco (tongue) and a mulita (kind of a thick corn tortilla sandwich with grilled chicken, cilantro, scallions, avocado and cheese).

They’re served on paper plates with sliced cucumber and radishes. Everything was fresh and popping with different flavors. It’s a tasty, delightful mess, alone worth the visit.

El Tigre is located at 1058 Third Ave. between Emerson and Naples Sts.

Mercado International 2000 is located at 1415 Third. Ave. between Orange Ave. and Quintard St.

Have some thoughts about El Tigre, Mercado International 2000 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:



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