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To many of us, Mexican products might seem much less exotic than the items I rounded up for my posts on Thai and Chinese cuisines. After all, you can find many typical Mexican ingredients at your local grocery store. In fact, a large percentage of the produce in American grocery stores actually comes from Mexico, especially in the winter months.
There are, however, certain things that go beyond the Goya aisle, things that you might not be able to find in the local Food Emporium or Whole Foods. Items like chiles and Mexican cheeses come in so many varieties, it is difficult to keep them straight and many large grocery chains don't stock them. Although cilantro has become mainstream, other Mexican herbs are less prevalent. It can be worthwhile to make the trip to a Mexican grocery to find certain items that are distinctly Mexican.
The highest concentration of Mexican grocery stores in New York City are in Sunset Park, Corona, East Harlem and Hell's Kitchen—though there are also several stores sprinkled throughout other areas of the city.
The best part of Mexican grocery shopping: many of the stores are also bakeries or taquerias, serving conchas, huaraches, tacos, and tamales for practically pennies. So, if you get hungry on the way, there's always a snack at hand.
Masa: If you want to make your own tortillas (recipe here) and/or tamales at home you will need masa—corn flour, which comes in two kinds of grinds. For tortillas, the masa must be fine; for tamales, it is coarse. The best tamales and tortillas are made using fresh masa, which you can buy at Tortilleria Nixtamal. Masa is $1.50 a pound for tortillas and $3.00 per pound for tamales. They recommend that you call ahead to reserve your order.
If you need masa in a hurry and can't make a trip to Tortilleria Nixtamal, look for Maseca instant corn flour, which is the brand recommended by Rick Bayless in his cookbook One Plate at a Time. Four-pound bags tend to sell for around $3.50, which is the price at Don Paco Lopez in Sunset Park. You can buy 2.2 lb bags for $2.99 at the Key Food supermarket in Sunset Park.
Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Corona, NY, 718-699-2434, www.tortillerianixtamal.com (map); Don Paco Lopez Panaderia Inc., 4703 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-492-7443 (map); Key Food, multiple locations.
Tortillas: Although you can make your own tortillas or buy packets of tortillas in almost any market across the city, I strongly recommend visiting one of the actual factories. Even though several markets carry the tortillas manufactured right here in New York, at the factory you can buy tortillas warm and fresh.
Hands-down the best tortillas in the city can be found at Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona, Queens. Their tortillas are the only ones in New York made from authentic fresh masa—the other factories use Maseca, the instant corn flour.
Nixtamal's tortillas are not yet sold in stores—though many restaurants, such as La Lucha, use them. To buy them to use at home, you have to visit the storefront, where you can purchase them for $2.25 a pound. It's well worth the trip—not only for the tortillas, but also because while you're at it you can pick up a quick bite to eat: their tamales ($2.50 each) are some of the best in the city.
Besides Tortilleria Nixtamal, there are five more factories in Bushwick. Tortilleria Chinantla, Plaza Piaxtla, and Buena Vista were the original three that formed what is known as "Tortilla Triangle." There are now Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos and Tortilleria Tenochtitlan as well. All of them look uninviting to the retail customer—outside there is just a metal door, and inside you will likely find a few workers packaging the tortillas as they come down the conveyor belt. But you can buy 32-ounce packages of tortillas (about 30 tortillas) for $1, hot off the press. Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos also runs a restaurant where you can get great tacquitos.
When tasting them plain, I preferred the tortillas from Tortilleria Chinantla because they had a slight sweetness to them, taking away from the blandness of a plain tortilla. My least favorites were those from Piaxtla, which were somewhat tough and rubbery (they were also the least fresh—the only ones I didn't get hot off the press). But my assessment changed slightly once they tortillas were filled: the rubbery texture of the Piaxtla tortillas made them hold up the best and they were sturdier for holding a hefty taco. The tortillas from Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos were perhaps the saltiest and made for a fabulous tacquito onsite.
Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Corona, NY, 718-699-2434, www.tortillerianixtamal.com (map); Tortilleria Chinantla, 75 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY, 718-302-0101 (map); Buena Vista Tortillas Corporation, 219 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-386-0200 (map); Plaza Piaxtla Inc., 913 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-386-2626 (map); Tortilleria Tenochtitlan, 952 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-418-9318 (map);Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, 271 Starr Street, Brooklyn, NY, 718-456-3422 (map).
Corn husks: To make wrapping tamales (recipe here) easier, you want to look for corn husks that are large and have no tears or holes. Also avoid husks with blemishes or streaks; the color should be even, Chef Josefina Howard writes in her Rosa Mexicano cookbook.
S D Fruit Vegetable Inc. had a good selection of three different brands. Plaza Piaxtla also had nice looking corn husks, as did Sam Inc. Grocery. Packages of corn husks tend to sell for around $3.50.
S D Fruit Vegetable Inc., 123 East 110th Street, New York, NY, 212-410-6165 (map); Plaza Piaxtla Inc., 913 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-386-2626 (map); Sam Inc. Grocery, 4228 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (map).
Piloncillo: Piloncillo, an unrefined sugar, is used in many Mexican desserts, such as in this Ancho Chile flan. It comes in cones or discs, and in order to use it you must break it up by chopping or grating it. Tulcingo del Valle Deli sells cones of the unrefined brown sugar for $1.85. You can also find piloncillo in large one pound discs at Sam Inc. Grocery.
Mole Poblano: What Americans tend to think of as mole—the thick, dark brown-reddish sauce, made with a combination of dried chiles and often Mexican chocolate—is called mole poblano.
Homemade versions (recipe here) are much better than the store-bought jarred kinds. Tortilleria Nixtamal sells a 16 oz. container of homemade mole poblano. Most Mexican restaurants will sell you a container of mole if you ask. If you are in a pinch and need to use a jar of mole paste, the Dona Maria brand is everywhere, but does not come highly recommended. Rogelio Bueno still isn't as good as homemade, but is better than Dona Maria. You can find it at Tehuitzingo Deli and Grocery.
Several stores also sell containers of La Poblanita or Poblano La Asuncion Inc.—look in the case at the counters of most deli/supermarkets.
Huitlacoche: Also called corn smut, huitlacoche is a fungus disease for corn plants. Someone had the brilliant idea of filling quesadillas with these fungus growths, which are sort of the Mexican equivalent of truffles.You can find cans of huitlacoche at Zaragoza Grocery.
Zaragoza Grocery, 215 Ave A, New York, NY, 212-780-9204 (map).
Mexican Chocolate: Although Mexican chocolate can be a drink, this cocoa powder mixed with cinnamon and other spices is also used in mole poblano. Kaluystan's carries two kinds of Mexican chocolate mixes used for desserts and drinks. Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables in the Essex Market also carries packages of Mexican chocolate.
In general, I recommend looking for produce at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where several of the stalls stock typical Mexican fruits and vegetables. There is also a stand on the corner of 116th Street and 2nd Avenue that had a great selection of fresh-looking produce as well as herbs. Trade Fair and Bravo Supermarkets are also good bets, though their produce is more hit or miss.
Avocados: Avocados can be immensely frustrating to purchase. Inevitably I'll get a hankering for guacamole, but can only find rock-hard avocados that won't be ready for at least a week and a half.
My new great discovery is that Mexican markets always seem to have ripe avocados on hand. Whereas Fairway had marble-like Hass avocados for 2 for $4, La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable had ready avocados for $0.99 each. Whole Foods does have Hass avocados from Mexico labeled "ripe," for 2 for $4, but my experience is that even though they say ripe, they aren't always.
Fairway, multiple locations; La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable, 4807 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-438-2493 (map); Whole Foods, multiple locations.
Tomatillos: Tomatillos, which looks somewhat like green tomatoes, are the key ingredient in salsa verde (recipe here). Rick Bayless writes that to get their best tangy flavor, look for ones that are firm; the best ones fill out their paper-like casing.
The Trade Fair in Astoria had very nice looking tomatillos for $1.49/lb. Zaragoza also had good full tomatillos. Dean and Deluca and Garden of Eden carry tomatillos, but they did not look so good at, respectively, the Upper East Side and 23rd Street locations. Their prices were much steeper as well at $5/lb and $2.99/lb.
Trade Fair, multiple locations; Zaragoza Grocery, 215 Ave A, New York, NY, 212-780-9204 (map); Dean and Deluca, multiple locations; Garden of Eden, multiple locations.
Nopales: These cactus paddles may not look edible, but you can eat them (once the prickers are removed) and they are used in tacos or salads. Rick Bayless recommends looking for nopales that are brighter in color and also rigid because they are more flavorful and have a superior texture to limp ones.
Several stores, such as Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables sell nopales in ready-chosen packages, but it is better to pick your own. At the cheapest, Mango Market had for $0.99/lb. Tulcingo Bakery had a nice selection for $1.75/lb.
Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-982-2235 (map); Mango Market, 82nd Street and Ithaca Street, Queens, NY (map); Tulcingo Deli Bakery #4, 40-13 Junction Blvd., Queens, NY, 718-205-2182 (map).
Chayote: Part of the squash family, chayote is also known as a "vegetable pear." Smooth, bright lime-green chayote is easy to find—many Asian stores in Chinatown carry it and Garden of Eden and Whole Foods do as well. More difficult to come across is the prickly, fuzzy, dark green kind. I found them at Guadalupita II, the Tulcingo on 82nd Street off of Roosevelt Avenue (not all of the Tulcingo Deli Bakeries had them), and the Bravo Supermarket in Sunset Park (the Bravo in Corona did not have them).
Garden of Eden, multiple locations; Whole Foods, multiple locations; Guadalupita II, 3901 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-438-1080 (map); Tulcingo Deli Bakery #4, 40-13 Junction Blvd., Queens, NY, 718-205-2182 (map); Bravo Supermarket, 5818 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-567-0910 (map).
Poblano Peppers: Stuffed, roasted, fried, and used in sauces and salsas, these relatively mild chile peppers are prepared numerous ways. Fresh poblano peppers, like avocados, are prevalent in the typical New York grocery store, though they can be more expensive in the typical chains. Whereas they are $5.00/lb at Dean and Deluca, they are $1.49/lb at Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables and $2.25/lb at Guadalupita II.
Dean and Deluca, multiple locations; Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetables, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-982-2235 (map); 3901 5th Avenue., 718-438-1080; Guadalupita II, 3901 5th Avenue., 718-438-1080 (map).
Jalapeños: Much spicier than poblano peppers, jalapeños are a signature item in Mexican cuisine. Like poblanos, they can be found at most normal supermarkets, but they are also much cheaper at Mexican groceries and stores in the outer boroughs. While they go for $4.99/lb at Whole Foods they are $0.99/lb at Key Food, Don Francisco Inc. Caniceria, and Trade Fair $0.99/lb. The cheapest were $0.98/lb at Corona Food Plaza.
Whole Foods, multiple locations; Key Food, multiple locations; Don Francisco Inc. Carniceria, 4805 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-437-4520 (map); Trade Fair, multiple locations; Corona Food Plaza, 4125 102nd Street, Queens, New York, 718-458-0522 (map).
Plantains: Plantains are essentially cooking bananas, and are starchier than the yellow bananas we're accustomed to. In Mexico, they are often fried or used in empanadas. You can buy them green or yellow.
Batista Mini Market in Essex Market had plantains for 2 for a dollar, as did Garden of Eden. Bravo Supermarket in Corona was selling green plantains 4 for $1, or 10 for $1 with a $15 purchase.
Batista Mini Market, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-254-0796 (map); Garden of Eden, multiple locations; Bravo Supermarket, multiple locations.
Cilantro: Cilantro looks similar to flat-leaf parsley, but has a much more pungent smell and taste. Several articles have been published about studies of it recently trying to figure out why it is an herb people either love or hate. There are theories that its taste varies for different people. Mexican cuisine is full of it, though, and there is the rare dish that is not sprinkled with it.
The stand on the corner of 116th Street and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem had a barrel full of gorgeous looking cilantro, as did Viva Fruit and Vegetable in Essex Market. The Tulcingo Deli Bakeries had bunches for $1.00. The cheapest cilantro I found was at S D Fruit Vegetable Inc., where it was selling for $1 for two bunches.
Stand on corner of 116th Street and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem, New York (map); Viva Fruit and Vegetable, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-353-0871 (map); Tulcingo Bakeries, multiple locations, Queens, NY; S D Fruit Vegetable Inc., 123 East 110th Street, New York, NY, 212-410-6165 (map).
Culantro: This herb, also known as long coriander, has a similar aroma to cilantro. Its leaf looks more like epazote, though: it is flat, long with spikes along the edges. Viva Fruit and Vegetable and Batista Mini Market in Essex Street Market both had bunches of culantro for $1.
Epazote: Similar to cilantro, it is a controversial herb with a strong smell and taste. Some hate it, while others love it. Even if it looks wilted, it will still serve its purpose, Bayless writes in One Plate at a Time. Using fresh is better than dried. In general, the fresh epazote I saw was very healthy looking. La Guadalupe Fruit and Vegetable has epazote, as well as a full range of herbs, for $1 a bunch.
La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable, 4807 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-438-2493 (map).
Hoja Santa: Fresh hoja santa is often used to wrap fish or meat in cooking for a sort of tamale. Sometimes it wraps fresh farmer's cheese as well. It is also used in the Oaxacan mole verde (recipe here).
Dried hoja santa dried is very easy to find; almost every Mexican deli I visited had it. But only the fresh can be used to wrap things since the dried form is too brittle. Fresh hoja santa is more difficult to find, but I discovered some at the Bravo in Corona.
Bravo Supermarket, multiple locations.
Dried Chiles: There are over one hundred kinds of chiles, and just in case you think you can keep them all straight, chiles often have different names for their fresh and dried versions. For example, ancho chiles are dried poblano peppers; chipotle chiles are smoked-dried jalapeños.
Most stores have some variety of dried chiles. I found it easiest to find what I was looking for at Sam Inc. Grocery and El Pueblo Mejicano where bins were clearly marked. Sam Inc. has pre-packed bags in the bins. At El Pueblo you can fill your own bag. Both stores sell the full range including ancho, pulla, mulato, guajillo, chipotle, and pasilla chiles.
Guadalupita II also packages its own dried goods and has a good selection of chiles. Piaxtla does as well, and sells them at their store in Bushwick, as well as at Viva Fruits and Vegetables in the Essex Market.
Sam Inc. Grocery, 4228 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (map); El Pueblo Mejicano, 238 East 116th Street, New York, NY, 212-410-3133 (map); Guadalupita II, 3901 5th Avenue., 718-438-1080 (map); Viva Fruit and Vegetable, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-353-0871 (map).
Pickled Chiles: Canned pickled chiles are easy to find (though not necessarily any easier to find than dried chiles in New York), but Rick Bayless recommends avoiding them, especially La Costeña brand. Citali Deli Grocery pickles their own chiles and will have more flavor than the jarred kinds.
Citali Deli Grocery, 4118 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 347-987-3681 (map).
Meats and Cheeses
Perhaps the most difficult things to find on my list were decent cheeses and chorizo. High-end specialty cheese shops and counters such as Murray's Cheese, Zabar's, and Dean and Deluca do not sell Mexican cheeses. Rick Bayless recommends avoiding Cacique and Supremo brands. Others warn that Tropical also tastes overly processed. Bravo Supermarkets are the best bet for finding a full range of cheeses—both when it comes to types and brands. In terms of chorizo, look for a Mexican butcher. More tips bellow.
Oaxaca: Similar to a mozzarella cheese, Oaxaca comes in a ball. It is great for melting and is usually used in quesadillas. Most of the delis listed here have it; you can find it for sure at Bravo Supermarket, Zaragoza, and Las Conchitas Bakery.
Fresco: Queso Fresco is the most common Mexican cheese. It is crumbly, almost like a feta cheese, though more mild. It is often sprinkled on top of various dishes, especially tacquitos and huaraches.
Marcelina's Mexican Food, an offshoot of Plaza Piaxtla distributes a variety of cheeses, including queso fresco, throughout the city. You can find Marcelina's cheeses as well as all other Piaxtla products at Viva Fruit and Vegetable in Essex Street Market.
Plaza Piaxtla Inc., 913 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-386-2626 (map); Marcelina's Mexican Food, 917 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-418-9515 (map); Viva Fruit and Vegetable, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-353-0871 (map).
Cotija: Similar to Parmesan, cotija is used grated, and although you often see it grated in bags, you can buy it in blocks as well. This cheese, like queso fresco, is sprinkled on top of many typical Mexican dishes. Marcelina's packages a Cotija as well. Bravo Supermarket carries several different brands.
Bravo Supermarket, multiple locations; Viva Fruit and Vegetable, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-353-0871 (map); Plaza Piaxtla Inc., 913 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-386-2626 (map); Marcelina's Mexican Food, 917 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-418-9515 (map).
Crema Fresca: Mexican sour cream is creamier and richer than the typical American sour cream. It is often drizzled on top of tacos and enchiladas. Here is a recipe for Chilaquiles Verdes that calls for Mexican crema.
As with many other products, homemade versions are the best. Citali Deli Grocery makes their own and sells it for $5.00 a container. Guadalupita II also sells plastic bags full of their own sour cream. Viva Fruit and Vegetables sells Marcelina's Mexican Food's crema fresca with a Piaxtla label on it. You can also get it at Plaza Piaxtla or Marcelina's Mexican Foods.
Citali Deli Grocery, 4118 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 347-987-3681 (map); Guadalupita II, 3901 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-438-1080 (map); Viva Fruit and Vegetable, 120 Essex Street, New York, NY, 212-353-0871 (map).
Chorizo: This spicy sausage is used in tacos and huaraches and many other Mexican dishes. Here is a recipe for chorizo tostadas. Local and homemade versions tend to be better than mass-produced packages, Rick Bayless writes in One Plate at a Time, because they have better textures. Here is a recipe to make your own chorizo.
If you're in a crunch, Whole Foods sells packages of Niman Ranch Chorizo for $5.99. Otherwise look for Mexican or Spanish butchers. Mi Barrio Meat Market and Don Francisco Inc. Carniceria had nice-looking links. Mi Barrio sells the sausage loose as well as in links.
Whole Foods, multiple locations; Don Francisco Inc. Carniceria, 4805 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718-437-4520 (map); Mi Barrio Meat Market, 1875 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 866-463-0695, www.mibarriomeatmarket.com (map).
There are many more places where you can find Mexican ingredients in New York City than I can list here. After visiting countless Mexican groceries and delis, I discovered that most of the stores are set up similarly and have almost identical inventories as well.
Almost all of the small stores have a variety of Mexican cheeses—usually cojita and Oaxaca—which you will find in the case by the counter. The case also tends to stock chorizo as well as crema fresca and perhaps some containers of mole poblano. Hanging on one wall there is usually a selection of dried ingredients including herbs, chilies, and corn husks. The shelves stock cans of pickled chilies, hot sauces, beans and masa. There will probably a few crates of produce as well. At the bare minimum you can find avocados and tomatoes, possibly tomatillos.
You can usually make a one-stop shopping trip unless you are hunting for specific produce, in which case you might want to refer to my produce listings. Best bets for getting all of your shopping done at once (except perhaps fresh tortillas) are Trade Fair, Bravo, La Guadalupe Fruit & Vegetable, the Tulcingo Deli Bakery empire in Corona, Queens, and S D Fruit Vegetable Inc. in East Harlem.