With salsa long the number one condiment in the U.S., the border between Mexican and American grocery stores is not as clear as it used to be. By now most people think of canned Goya frijoles as vritually interchangeable with Progresso’s. But do you know your poblanos from your jalapeños, or bananas from batatas (sweet potatoes)? If you’ve found yourself at your local supermarket or specialty store eyeing all of those colorful jars and odd-shaped cheeses, this guide is for you.
I started by experimenting with pre-made condiments and marinades available in jars and cans. For cooking meat, chicken or fish, I found a few common ingredients very useful. Adobo and mole (marinades and sauces) can be a little dense, but they’re great to combine with the pan juices or broth of braised meat or poached chicken to deepen the flavor. Banana leaves, typically used to wrap tamales, can also be used to swaddle marinated meats, chicken and fish to add a smoky flavor when they’re roasted or steamed. (By the way, a great resource for the beginning Mexican chef is Latin Chic, by Carolina Buia and Isabel González, a cookbook and entertaining bible that offers a vivid cross section of contemporary Latin food.)
For a fresh salsa, tomatillos are ideal. The small, green, thin-husked tomato-like fruits can be bought fresh and then pureed with jalapenos, cilantro, onions, garlic, salt and water. For a spicier alternative, replace the jalapenos with dried costeño chiles that have been boiled until just tender. Chorizo, a sausage and another Mexican grocery staple, is commonly added to rice and beans, stews or baked eggs. Just remove the casing and brown the ground meat for a few minutes first.
While most stores carry an inexpensive array of farmer’s cheeses, the white bricks can all blend together to the unaccustomed eye. Here’s a quick cheat sheet: queso fresco, a crumbly “fresh cheese,” doesn’t melt easily, so it’s an easy substitute for Feta. It’s often confused with queso blanco, which comes in two varieties — one has a creamy texture when heated and the other, labeled para freir, holds its shape when fried. Cotija is similar to Parmesan, and then there’s Oaxacan string cheese, which melts like mozzarella and goes great in quesadillas.
On the hunt for new ingredients over the past week, I visited a slew of supermarkets and Mexican grocers around Brooklyn. I was armed with my kitchen Spanish and a lot of questions. Thankfully, the store owners were more than happy to oblige, and with seemingly unlimited patience. In fact, everyone I met went to pains to emphasize just how much more there was to try and see. Maybe I did only scratch the surface, but here’s a start:
To get a sense of the selection at a large chain supermarket, I went to the Key Food in Sunset Park (4320 Fifth Ave., between 43rd and 44th Sts., 718-438-9510). In addition to the usual Goya aisle and farmer’s cheeses, they had a small front section with go-to Mexican items like Doña Maria adobo and mole for $2.99. It’s also worth looking at the Los Compadres section for dried chiles and herbs, including Mexican oregano, which is more potent than the Mediterranean variety but used the same way. Each bag was only 99¢, as was a 2 lb. bag of fresh corn tortillas, so it’s a painless way to try something new. I also found a bag of frozen banana leaves for $1.79. They can be defrosted and refrozen as needed. Finally, it’s always exciting to find a supermarket that offers any malt beverage, much less a choice between Vitarroz and Malta India ($3.49, $3.99/8pk).
With its overflowing baskets of fresh produce lining the window, I was immediately drawn to Citalis Deli (4118 fifth Ave., between 41st and 42nd Sts.) Just opened, it’s brighter and spacier than the smaller grocery stores we’d passed. The manager was excited by the growing interest in Mexican food and the variety this allows the store to carry. He explained the different degrees of heat between a few peppers: the mild poblanos that are roasted and stuffed, the medium heat jalapeños and the hot Serrano chiles that make for a tearful dinner. There also were two types of tomatillos: the smaller, sweet ones for $1.29/lb and the larger, tart ones for $0.99/lb. In the back, there was a full case of what seemed like every Mexican cheese, each for $5/lb. (Only buy what you need; they’re highly perishable and need to be used quickly.)
Smaller than the original Guadalupita on Seventh Ave., Guadalupita II (Fifth Ave. and 39th St., 718-438-1080) is the place to find Mexican home ware. This is especially true if you’re looking for a piñata, a tortilla press or a stone mortar and pestle for making guacamole (one was shaped like a woman’s breast). It really is a great mix of things. They have a Victoria tortilla press for $19.99, to be used with Maseca, an instant corn flour that many stores now carry. Mixed with water and salt, Maseca turns into a dough to be rolled into separate balls and pressed to create well formed tortillas.
Stopping by Mi Mexico Pequeño (4513 Fifth Ave., between 45th and 46th Sts., 718-437-1031) before heading home, I picked my way through baker’s racks full of variations on pan mexicano, sweet brioche-like buns with names like conchas, monas and besos. They’re topped with sugar or stuffed with jellies, custard or dried fruits and go for less than a dollar apiece. Once we started taking pictures, the staff pulled out full trays and brought out the dramatic pan de muerto. The “bread of the dead,” to be used in October to make offerings on the Day of the Dead, is decorated with bones and flavored with anise seeds.
Recently renovated, the Key Food on Fifth Ave. in Park Slope (120 Fifth Ave. at Sterling Place, 718-783-8339), has a full case of tropical juices and frozen fruit pulps for shakes and smoothies for much less than at the typical health food store. The store has a Latin-heavy ethnic foods aisle with a better balance between Caribbean and Mexican foods than at the Sunset Park location. This Keyfood might be what every suburban supermarket will look like in 2025 if the census continues to tell us the same story about Hispanics in the U.S. With a small parking lot in front, I think of the store as a sort of Latino Fairway.
The size of the Goya section at the Boerum Hill Met Food (197 Smith St., between Baltic and Butler Sts., 718-237-0317) seems inversely related to the growth of the organic foods aisle. Slightly more expensive than Key Food, the store still has a good selection of Mexican produce like yucca, batatas (sweet potatoes), tomatillos and farmer’s cheeses — both Colombian and Mexican. Taken with Felmingo Corp. (189 Smith St., 718-625-6533), the small bodega a couple of doors down, the block makes a strong showing.
Small and neat, Ditmas Park’s Mex Deli Grocery (1625 Cortelyou Rd., between East 16th and East 17th Sts., 718-282-0454) packs a large grocery’s worth of inventory in its floor-to-ceiling shelves. While they have the same jarred and canned pantry items I’ve already mentioned, they also sell fresh, homemade tubs of traditional condiments like adobo and mole for $8.00/lb and a cheese and chorizo assortment for $5.50/lb. Not quite satisfied after spending 20 minutes answering my questions about making tamales, the proprietors insisted I come back with the results so they could check my work.