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

Secrets of the Latin American supermarket, Part 3

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Last month, 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.

We started with a two-part tour of a Super King store by guest blogger Lory Tatoulian, who showed us where to find the best Armenian products. At the end of April, I began a three-part tour of a Latin American grocery warehouse, the giant Superior Grocers warehouse in Bell.

In parts one and two, we learned bakery section etiquette and the secrets of the herbal tea and religious sections, among many other things. In this final installment we'll explore the rest of the store, leading us to the checkout line. So as Dora the Explorer would say, vámonos.

(Continued from recently)

Much has been written over the years about the spending power of Latinos, the reason for the existence of mega-store chains like Superior. But wandering around the store also gives you a glimpse into how many immigrants from Latin America stretch their dollars.

The variety of inexpensive starchy products is hard to miss, from the family-sized bags of store-brand sweetened cereals in bins at the back of the store to the towering aisle - huge, really - of instant ramen noodles. In the refrigerated section, there is a staggering selection of juice substitute drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup.

It starts with the low-income staple Sunny Delight, but it doesn’t end there. That’s because Latinos have their own version, the creatively flavored concoction known as Tampico.

I’ve never counted all the flavors and hues of Tampico. There is Sunny Delight-style citrus, mango, a green version involving kiwi, a pinkish-red one involving mixed fruit. Of course, fruit doesn’t have that much to do with it. While often drunk in place of juice, this is liquid candy. But it does taste quite good. And most importantly for those buying it, compared to juice, it’s cheap.

None of this – the Tampico, the ramen noodles, the bright Fruit Loops knockoffs – is good for you. We've read the stories about Latinos and health: New immigrants arrive healthy, then get gradually sicker as they accustom themselves to the processed American diet. It’s not just fast food that does it. Where they shop and what they buy plays into it, and much of that is determined by price.

But healthy eating vs. money saved is tough fight to pick with the people buying these items. The money saved on a gallon of Tampico over real orange juice can significantly stretch a paycheck. It can signify a dollar or more saved toward that little starter home in Maywood, or toward mija’s tuition at Cal State L.A., or toward the monthly remittance check sent home to aging parents. And for many a frugal immigrant, that’s reason enough to pinch pennies.

Leaving the Tampico aisle, you can find a little cheer toward the end of aisle near the back, where the pre-made gelatin desserts are found, colorful little clear tubs with opaque layers or embedded little opaque cubes. (We are fascinated by this stuff for some reason, as I’ve mentioned, and I’m not sure why, other than that it's neat-looking.) This is also where you can find little tubs of pre-made arroz con leche and pre-made flan. Not nearly as good as the homemade stuff – this is coming from someone who makes a mean flan - but it satisfies the occasional craving.

Now on to the aisle where the big bags of nixtamal sit, ready to be mixed into tamales or tortillas. This is the aisle that hums at Christmas time, when bags of Maseca fly off the shelves and it’s hard to keep enough hojas (dried corn husks, found over in the spice and tea section) in stock. As fun as it is to make and eat them, preparing tamales is a chore, even for those who opt to use a dried masa mix or masa preparada (pre-mixed masa) as opposed to grinding the corn, which some purists insist on. Eating too many tamales once a year can also get to you, which is perhaps why many people burn out on them January. But if you’re hankering for a springtime tamales feast, this is the place to get started.

Before you leave the shelves and head toward the tortilleria and meat sections, spend a little time in the hot sauce aisle. The selection here is a little broader than you’ll find in the average supermarket, which usually stocks the basic brands, like L.A.-made Tapatio and imported Cholula. I’m a Tapatio loyalist, but there’s one potent brand here that will knock you flat: El Yucateco. It’s made from habanero peppers and it’s sick hot, but it’s delicious. It’s a must-try, so pick some up.

If you swing by the frozen section, you’ll find some treats there also. Amid the frozen plantains, yuca (cassava root, served steamed by Cubans and deep fried by Central Americans) and loroco (a savory herb used in Central American cuisine), you’ll find smooth, flat bags of pureed frozen tropical fruit, like guanabana, otherwise known as soursop. No need to explain the taste, it's just good. Once at home, let it thaw slightly, then put the puree in a blender with milk and sugar and enjoy. It’ll knock your socks off.

An entire corner of the store is dedicated to the in-house tortilleria, where through a window you can see the mini-assembly line of employees cranking out fresh tortillas. The adjacent shelves are lined with bags of freshly made ones, steam collecting on the inside. The shelves are also lined with just about every packaged product that can be made with tortillas – tostadas, chips, etc. You can buy a tortilla warmer, even a giant vaporera (steamer) for your next tamalada. This section is highly recommended.

Move toward the back and you'll find the meat section, where you can find the right cuts of meat for carne asada, pre-seasoned cecina and beef oxtails for dishes like rabo encendido. Toward the very back of the store are all varieties of chorizo (including a vegetarian Mexican-style version) and fresh Mexican and Central American-style cheeses and cremas. A quick note about crema: It's not like the sour cream that gets glopped onto California-style Mexican food. It has a creamier, less gelatinous texture, more along the lines of French crème fraiche, and has a creamy-milky, not sour, taste. Dip a sweet fried plantain in it and you'll be in heaven.

And it's in this section that you'll find the grand prize: The chicharrones. You’ll find them in a big, clear square box, sort of like an aquarium, at one corner of the meat counter, kept warm under a heat lamp. These are the real thing, big uneven sections of pig skin that are greasy, bubbly, crackly and ridiculously good. Consume in moderation, but consume.

Now that we’ve reached the far corner of the Latin American grocery warehouse, we can consider ourselves ready to head to the checkout line.

The ideal cart will be laden with freshly-baked conchas and orejas, inexpensive mangos, papaya, plantains, spices, hot Sabritas chips with a little Jarritos tamarind soda to wash them down, a cheap fragrant bag of Foca detergent printed with its adorable baby seal mascot, Ibarra hot chocolate tablets, condensed milk for making flan at home (and to dump into the malta you’re going to pick up around the corner at El Mundo), some El Yucateco sauce, an obligatory jug of kiwi Tampico (because you have to try it just once, and it's a lovely green), a votive candle over which to pray for a raise, a bag of frozen guanabana, crema for your plantains, some chorizo, a bag of tortillas so fresh you’ll want to open it in the car, and a small but necessary package of chicharrones.

And perhaps a packet of chamomile flowers - a strong brew of these works wonders for a very full stomach, and will ease you right into a nice siesta.

You’re all set, for now.

Stay tuned for a forthcoming tour of an Asian American supermarket from KPCC’s own OnCentral blog editor Kim Bui, who is putting together her shopping list.