Exploring ethnic markets: La Michoacana

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From the July 25, 2013 edition

What’s in store

There are a number of La Michoacanas in Columbus, but this one’s tidier, more organized and manageably sized. Yet it still has an overachieving, full-service little eatery (with alcohol!) and carries rare and fresh tropical items such as mamey (papaya-ish fruit), Nahuatl-named xoconostle (the Aztec-spoken language for a prickly pear cactus) and that distinct and kinda petroleum-ish herb beloved by pre-Columbian peoples called epazote.

On the marginally less esoteric side, there are rows of dayglo Mexican sodas (I’m partial to apple-flavored “Sidral”) and scores of inexpensive dried chilies, spices and herbs. In the rear, a busy prepared foods and butcher shop sells fresh and ready-to-eat things like ceviches and cactus salads plus all kinds of specially sliced and/or pre-seasoned meats such as fajita beef, chivo (goat), in-store-made chorizo (recently on sale for $1.59/pound) and pork rinds the size of an elephant’s ear.

Likewise available are: Mexican cheeses, cremas, hot sauces, tons of (mostly) chili- and lime-powered snacks (try crunchtastic Takis “En Fuego”), a large selection of tortillas (including whole wheat), tortilla presses, ready-to-cook tortilla and tamale dough, prettily painted Mexican pottery, molcajetes (mortar and pestle), dramatic religious icons ... in short, all manner of stuff to ponder and cause hunger.

Grocery list

· Koki’s Tortillas ($1.50/36): Made fresh in Columbus; heat ’em up by quickly blistering them directly on/in a stovetop burner (use tongs).

· Tajin ($2.29): The ubiquitous chili, lime and salt seasoning sprinkled on all kinds of street food in Mexico City — it’s especially good on sliced fruit “bouquets” and grilled corn with all those other lusty Mexican fixin’s.

· Chicharron con cerdo ($6/pound): ZOMFG! Sold between the vibrant sodas and the butcher case, this is an insanely delicious self-serve mix of deep-fried, crispy pork cracklings and big pieces of tender, juicy, soulful and impossible-to-stop-eating pork rib meat.

· La Soledad brand Oaxacan black mole ($5.59 for a tub): ZOMFG again! The only thing harder than making great mole from scratch is finding a decent version of it in a local restaurant. That’s why I buy this rich, wildly complex and mindblowing stuff. Shortcut: “Toast” it raw and alone in a pan for five minutes, thin it (not too much) with chicken broth/stock, then add chicken (could be pulled rotisserie bird) … guaranteed awesome!

Dine-in

In addition to really great and super-cheap taco truck-style tacos ($1.50 apiece; my favorite is the weekend-only barbacoa, i.e. luscious lamb meat) the excellent little, but large menu-equipped, restaurant here makes terrific entrees like pescado a la Veracruzana (saucy pan-seared tilapia) and pork al pastor with cuts-above rice and beans.