There’s an old bit of advice about shopping on a budget: Never buy groceries when you’re hungry.
But let’s turn that on its head. Why not go to the grocery precisely when you’re hungry?
If you know where to go, you can quell hunger at breakfast, lunch or dinner right at the store, then set about the chore of buying food to take home to cook.
That’s the way it’s always been at Mexican markets.
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“Most stores in Mexico are like this,” says Antonio Morales, manager of the La Superior grocery store on Franklin Boulevard. “It’s a tradition to have customers come in and eat, then they buy the stuff they’re going to cook.”
It’s the central market ideal. Most any village or city in Mexico has something called the mercado central – central market. There, inside a big hall, one can buy just-made tacos, tamales, carnitas, sandwiches, candy, coconut juice poured directly from a pierced coco shell, sweets, licuados and other blender drinks, and indulge on the spot. Then it’s customary to find a favorite vendor for specific items for the home, such as green or dried red chilies, fruits, cheeses, fish, meats and bread.
“The central market has everything,” Morales says. “Food, produce, even clothing.”
La Superior is modeled after those markets. But instead of wandering around a labyrinth of centuries-old passages as one would in an old Mexican city, La Superior is more like a big American supermarket with tidy aisles – except for one thing.
Where you’d see a big sign in an American layout directing you to the “delicatessen,” at La Superior the sign says “cocina.” That means kitchen, and at this store – the largest of the four La Superior locations in the Sacramento region – the cooking has the variety and volume of a restaurant, seating included.
If you shop in the morning, for $6.99 you can have a plate of huevos rancheros with chorizo or ham, or huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) made right in front of you. Drinks in clear glass barrels rotate choices from celery juice and horchata (tasting like the rice pudding) to hibiscus iced tea.
By 11:30 a.m., pans fill with fresh pork in green chili sauce, refried beans or whole beans, vegetables in light red sauce, pozole, carnitas and caldo – a soup with carrots, potato, sometimes a piece of corn on the cob, zucchini and fall-off-the-bone meat in a light beef broth. Customers come to this location from nearby Univision, Department of Motor Vehicles, cab drivers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies.
Down the line is the Taqueria, a taco bar reminiscent of the offerings from a food truck – three tacos for $6.99, your choice of chicken, tongue, carnitas, tripe, pork chili verde, pork chili colorado and chorizo.
“It is like a little restaurant,” says assistant manager Edgar Zamora of this quick-order setup with a full kitchen in back. “We have to pass the health department, fire department, all inspections,” Zamora says.
Chicharrones delgado, which are pork rinds the size of elephant ears and crisp enough to stand upright, take up a big display.
“We’re giving a little piece of Mexico,” Zamora says.
The cocina segment represents about 30 percent of La Superior’s business. Behind the counter, it takes a staff of 12 to cook and serve. Flautas (flutes) and enchiladas are rolled by hand every day. The ingredients are from the same vendors that deliver products to the store. “The same meats that come to the meat department come here” to the cocina, Zamora explains.
As you order, you might hear a blender whirling in back. Corn tortillas are being fried on the spot for chips. Once at the table, a large, whole bay leaf might surface – a sign of proper seasoning – in your bowl of pozole, a soup with hominy in red chili broth with cubes of pork.
“Nothing comes in cooked. It’s fresh. It’s all made here,” says Zamora. “This is preferred by Mexican customers. For the people of our country, we make it familiar, like it’s cooked by Mom,” says Zamora.
If a combination enchilada or garlic shrimp plate seems like too much to consume on the spot, you can get it to go. Or grab a burrito or torta (sandwich) and nosh while you walk your cart around the store. But Morales, the manager, recommends sitting down for a few minutes.
The food is everyday style. He happens to like his Mexican food very spicy. “But we’re cooking for Chinese people, black people, white people – everybody comes here. We make everything medium-hot. That’s why we have salsa on the side.”
Of course, if you must, you can buy yourself a special garnish from the offerings – several whole grilled jalapeños.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.
La Superior SuperMercado
What: A supermarket modeled after the big central markets in Mexican cities, including a cocina (kitchen) that employs about a dozen employees per store. Signs are in English and Spanish.
Where: 4606 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento; in all there are eight stores in Northern California.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Information: www.lasuperiormercados.com; (916) 731-8120