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The Triangle's Latino supermarkets offer cultural adventures

Claire Cromah, from Sierra Leone, selects aloe plants at Compare Foods in Durham.

Photo by Rex Miller

Claire Cromah, from Sierra Leone, selects aloe plants at Compare Foods in Durham.

See also: Mexican cuisine: A glossary | Balcazar Bakery in Raleigh | The Indy's restaurant guide

There's a whole world of Mexican meals there, eaters, and it's all inside a well-lit grocery store near you.

You may have been eating Mexican—either Americanized or authentic—at restaurants and taquerias for years. You may have even tried to make your own at home, but felt intimidated by shopping for ingredients. As the Triangle's Latino community has grown, smaller mercados and tiendas that dot the landscape have been joined by new superstores such as El Mandado, which opened in Raleigh in 2000, and more recently, Compare Foods in Raleigh, Durham, Zebulon and Sanford.

They offer tons of ingredients to make your own Latin-inspired meals, as well as products you'd find in any grocery store: from gefilte fish to Gatorade, paper towels to Pop Tarts. Some of the larger stores even have their own taqueria inside.

And shouldn't we lovers of Mexican food begin trying to make our chiles rellenos at home?

"I think we should take advantage of exploring these foods that are now available to us, because we have a broader population here," says Margaret Lundy, owner of Margaret's Cantina in Chapel Hill, who agrees to lead a guided shopping excursion tour.

She starts with a vocabulary lesson: "First of all, quit calling them peppers; they're chiles."

Considering that learning the lingo can be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic cooks, it's not surprising that many of us shy away from duplicating our favorite Mexican restaurant dishes at home.

"Many of us can make pesto, even roll out our own pasta," writes Rick Bayless, the author of several books on Mexican cuisine, in the introduction to Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. "But handed a recipe for guajillo chile sauce or peanut mole—in fact, practically any traditional Mexican recipe—and we feel all thumbs."

When faced with the work required in preparing real chiles into those sauces, "many North American cooks will simply retreat to a modern recipe for grilled chicken breasts with corn-and-black-bean salsa," continues Bayless, owner of and chef at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill restaurants in Chicago. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not the real thing. "The real thing is rich with complex flavors, remarkably delicious, invigorating and satisfying. And it is not difficult to put on the table with ease and confidence. We just need a little experience."

So, we're off to shop.

A special on boots in Compare Food's clothing boutique - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

Inside the Compare Supermarket at 2000 Avondale Drive in Durham, we find huge varieties of chiles, tortillas and rice, as well as piñatas, Our Lady of Guadalupe candles, a butcher and a fishmonger. The store, which opened in November 2006, also offers a real estate agency, a beauty salon, a bakery and even a small clothing boutique.

Lundy grew up in the Southwestern United States and has been eating Mexican all her life and cooking it for others for years. When she first came to North Carolina about 30 years ago, she had no hope of finding tortillas or chiles in stores here. She used to bring a spare suitcase on trips home, to fill up with foodstuffs. "I was just trying to eat the food I grew up with, and I couldn't find good quality ingredients," she says.

But that has certainly changed. She has teamed up with local farmers who grow some of the produce she uses in the restaurant, but the markets have increased as well.

"Most of the mercados and tiendas cater to the Latino population, and the reason that they're springing up is that there are more people to come buy at them," she says. "In Mexico, people tend to buy from their local market and their local village, so if they use the same style here, they're going to the one in their neighborhood. I also think it has to do with immigrants coming here and wanting to establish themselves, so they want to be in business."

Miguelina Cruz provides beautician services at Compare Foods in Durham - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

Compare Foods owner Elijio Pena calls his 17-year-old chain of 53 stores "an American supermarket with strong international taste." The family company was born in New York City and has a large presence in the Northeast, but North Carolina has become its largest Southern market, with 20 locations, including the Durham store, which opened in a former Winn-Dixie.

This large store, as well as similar ones in all corners of the Triangle, provides adventurous cooks a fantastic selection of key ingredients for Latin American—especially Mexican—cuisine. And it draws from an international clientele; on one recent afternoon, Asian, Caucasian, Latino and African-American shoppers crossed paths in the produce section.

We begin in the produce section, which—just like every other supermarket—is right up front. It has all the usual bins of carrots, apples and the like, but it also has mountains of chiles, fresh and dried: jalapenos, serranos, guajillos, anchos. Sometimes the names can be confusing, because the same pepper is called something different when it's fresh (jalapeno) or dried (chipotle). Plus, Lundy says, "Regionally, and country to country, you may find different chiles going by different names." There's a bin of tomatillos, which are not green tomatoes but a cousin to the tomato. There are pan-Latin ingredients such as banana leaves, yucca and salted fish. There are cactus leaves and huge aloe spears.

Tostadas in many varieties at Compare Foods in Durham - PHOTO BY REX MILLER

The increasing availability of ingredients has affected Lundy's menus over the years. So have the Mexican immigrants who have come to work in her kitchen. They've brought a few adjustments. An example is the type of chile used in chiles rellenos. More recent immigrants hailing from Central and Southern Mexico use the poblano chile, whereas Lundy's Sonoran-influenced background called for the Anaheim green chile.

"One new dish that I have that is very influenced by [newcomers] is chiles en nogada. It designates the Mexican flag: green chile, white nogada sauce—which is a walnut sauce made with Mexican crema and queso fresco—and topped with pomegranate seeds or strawberries." It's a celebratory dish, made a few times a year for special occasions such as Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day. "That's a dish that I'd never even heard of," Lundy says.

We continue winding our way through the store, to the familiar supermarket soundtrack, hearing announcements in both Spanish and English. We cruise past a fishmonger and a huge meat department, where the butcher frying the whole skin of a pig in a deep vat offers us a sample. There is carne al pastor along with the steaks and chops, frozen whole rabbit next to Cornish game hens, chicharrones and chicken. The dairy section has queso fresco as well as string cheese. And tucked in right up front is a panaderia and pasteleria—a bakery. Sweet.

  • There's a whole world of Mexican meals there, eaters, and it's all inside a well-lit grocery store near you.

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