Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Secrets of the Latin American supermarket

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Last week, Multi-American kicked off a series of informal guides to the ethnic supermarket, the mega-bodegas of all flavors that have become part of the regional landscape as Southern California’s immigrant enclaves have grown and evolved. Guest blogger Lory Tatoulian took us on a tour of a Super King store, part of a warehouse grocery chain that caters to Los Angeles' vast Armenian American community. This week I'll be your guide, touring one of the region's many superstores catering to Latinos. So let's go.

The Latin American supermarket has been a familiar sight in Southern California for decades. When I was a kid, my family shopped for familiar products in the small carnicerías of Huntington Park and Bell, but I remember when things began changing. One of the first incarnations of the Latino warehouse store was a Vons-owned chain called Tianguis - a Nahuatl word for an open public market  - that opened a store near us.

The chain eventually fell by the wayside in the 1990s, but since then, large and affordable grocery stores catering to Latino customers have mushroomed. There are more chains than I can name offhand, among them Gonzales Northgate Markets, Amapola, Liborio and Superior Grocers. Most cater to the majority of the region's Latino residents, stocking products familiar to the Mexican palate. Others, like Liborio, whose original Koreatown store is worth its own tour, also stock products appealing to Central American, Caribbean and South American tastes.

For my tour, I returned to the former site of our neighborhood Tianguis in Bell, now a massive Superior Grocers and still one of the biggest Latino supermarkets I've visited. It still has its own full-service bakery and tortilleria. It's also a place where you can get lost amid aisles of chips and snacks far tastier that anything you'd find at Ralphs or Vons, marvel at how many rainbow hues of sugary Tampico punch exist in a giant refrigerated drink aisle, dabble in a little santería in the religious section and get schooled in the dark arts of herbal tea, Latin-style.

On its face, the Superior looks much like any other giant American grocery store, with a twist here and there. Park in the lot in front and weave your way through the displays arranged outside the doors, seemingly without rhyme or reason: Cases of bottled water (Latinos aren't big on tap), energy drinks (they taste good), a pile of plantains and papayas.

Continue toward the right, to the bakery section. This looks much like any other grocery store bakery on its face, but looks are deceiving. That round thing that looks like a cake? It's an elaborate gelatin mold. Don't ask me to explain the relationship that Latinos have with gelatin, but it's there. I've been making Jell-o molds since childhood.

The bakery section is also where pan dulce delicacies live, the conchas, orejas (in our no-nonsense fashion, we refer to this larger Mexican version of what the French call palmiers as ears, because they look like 'em), quesadillas (not the tortilla kind) and other starchy good things. But don't ask the girl behind the counter to get them for you. The etiquette: Take a tray, use the tongs to serve yourself, then take them to the counter. Easy as that.

Grab some produce as you head toward the back of the store, perhaps some mangos, a relative steal at two for 99 cents, and pick up a conveniently-displayed container of Tajín chile-salt-lime seasoning to shake on your mango slices while you're at it. If you're seeking tropical fruit, this is the place: There are ample piles of papaya, pineapple, plantains. Keep moving toward the back.

Once you pass the brightly colored display of piñatas, you're in the right place. An entire section of the back wall is dedicated to: a) those shiny little cellophane packets of spices that are way cheaper and more varied than anything packaged by Lawry's; b) cellophane packets and little cardboard boxes filled with herbal teas for every situation, whether you want to lose weight or sleep like the dead.

Pick up a little cumin, a little oregano, some chile powder, whatever you need to refill your spice jars, then keep moving to the left. Ignore the unattractive plaster alcancías (piggy banks) and focus on the teas. For those who like chamomile, what I know best as manzanilla, there are packets of raw chamomile flowers that will brew you a strong cup like no tea bag can. For the hard stuff, pick up a packet or box of a tea labeled "Siete Azahares," or seven blossoms, a knock-you-out brew which among its ingredients lists potent valerian. (Extreme insomniacs can also find little cellophane packets with pure valerian root - proceed with caution.)

The spice and tea section also bears testament, sadly, to a population that embraces home remedies not just by tradition, but for lack of health insurance. There are home-remedy teas that extend far beyond cold and flu, or even the many weight loss varieties. Some are amusing ("Gases," reads one), some not. "Diabetes," reads another. At under two bucks a packet, these are an understandable temptation for those seeking to put off a doctor visit, and that's not a good thing.

But after passing through a section of home remedies that promise to cure our ills, a little sinning is in order, right? Which leads us to the snacks and soda aisle.

(To be continued: Stay tuned tomorrow as I point out some of the best chips known to man, list the many uses of condensed milk and explain the religious section.)