I had the most luscious avocado today. It was perfectly ripe and was the most vibrant shades of green. I had picked it up at one of my favorite little stores on the Avenue, La Plaza. La Plaza is a cute family-run Mexican grocery located at 520 E. Landis Avenue that is loaded with Mexican food finds. I go there at least once a week to get an avocado or two because they almost always are beautifully ripe and delicious. But there is more that just avocados at La Plaza, there are the fixings for some serious Mexican cooking.
In addition to the staples of any urban market, there is a decent selection of foods used to prepare comida Mexicana. Past the front counter that has Latino CD’s, calling cards, sodas, and other knick-knacks, three rows split out of the main area. To the right, there is a plethora of dried chilies… some in big opaque white plastic bins, some in clear plastic jars, some in bags. Most are marked with the Spanish name of the chile, which makes since because I don’t think there is an equivalent word in English for ‘chipotle’ or ‘poblano;’ these are just the names of the chilies. Most I didn’t recognize, but it was easy enough to take a peek and, more importantly, a big whiff. The gentleman that owns the store has advised me in the past of how to use some of the chilies and has also been happy to inform me of the relative spiciness of each chile.
The chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño pepper, is my favorite and they are made in an interesting manner. At the end of the peppers growing cycle, the ultra-ripe red jalapeños are selected to be made into chipotle. They are placed onto metal racks and moved into a drying chamber where hot wood smoke is drafted over them. Over the course of a couple days, the jalapeños are impregnated with the smoke and all of the moisture is removed, thus turning the jalapeño into chipotle.
At La Plaza, the aroma of the smoked peppers filled the air as I placed a handful of them into a plastic bag. Along the same wall as the chilies, there was a tortilla press (my mother got one about a year ago from La Plaza and was instructed on how to use it… my family enjoys fresh tortillas to this day!). At the end of the short aisle, there is an unassuming display case that holds fresh peppers, tomatillos (for making salsa verde), limes, and cabbages. Next to that case is a small table that usually has someone cleaning cactus leaves for Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant next door which they also own. In front of the case are stacks and stacks of fresh corn tortillas from a tortilla shop in Bridgeton, made from both regular corn and blue corn (which taste the same but look dramatically different.) While I was there, I picked up a package of tortilla.
Also in the back, there is a fridge with sliding doors that houses the avocados as well as queso fresco (a fresh crumbly cheese), cilantro, plum tomatoes, chorizo sausage, and more goodies. I grabbed an avocado and walked back to the front of the store, through the middle isle, and past the canned chipotle in adobo sauce, various beans, masa harina, and cornhusks. After paying and bidding ‘adios’ I headed back to the bakery to make some tacos.
Now my tacos are more Mexican than American, since I use the soft corn tortillas and not the crunchy shells, but I do put my own spin on them. The first task was to get the beans and rice cooking. I chopped up an onion and a few cloves of garlic and threw them into a pan with hot oil. One of the chipotles went in as well, which would provide a nice background of spice and smokiness. It really does make a lovely addition to the rice and beans. After the onion and garlic softened, I dropped and spoonful of tomato paste into the bottom of the pan and stirred it in along with a bit of cumin, paprika, and salt and pepper. After a minute or so, a cup of brown rice, two cups of water and a can of black beans went into the pot. While that simmered, I prepared the tortillas. They needed to be cooked before eating, and the best way (I learned this from the Mexican line cooks in San Francisco) is to cook them right on the fire of the stovetop. I turned the burners onto medium, and peeled back the first few tortillas, which are about six inches in diameter. I placed them directly on the flames, and in a few seconds they began to puff and brown. I quickly flipped them and toasted the other side. They only took maybe 30 seconds each, and after toasting, they went into a bowl that I covered with a cloth. They continued to steam and soften as I prepared the remaining sides.
Everyone can doctor their tacos up however they choose, which is the fun part about them. On the family table, I laid out a spread of shredded pepper jack cheese, dressed shredded cabbage, organic yogurt (which is more nutritious then sour cream), hot sauce, and lettuce leaves. The tortillas were unmasked and the rich aroma of toasted corn tortillas floated into the air. The beans and rice were then uncovered, and savory, smoky, and spicy scents wafted into the air.
We’re lucky to have such a selection of Mexican foods so close at hand. I always head to La Plaza when I need some Mexican groceries, and I certainly head there to pick up my avocados. And even though their English isn’t great, the folks that own it always have a smile on their faces and always make me feel welcome, and that’s all the communication I need.