Mercado Magic

I decide to go grocery shopping on a Sunday. And for a minute, I forget I am in Arizona.

In the largest open-air marketplace in North America, Mercado de la Merced, located just a short distance from the original Aztec Tenochtitlán market in Mexico City, you stand among a sea of colors and aromas. Row after row of nopal cactus pads, perfectly stacked, compete against vendors for your attention and business. Colossal banana leaves are brightly lighted by delicate rays of sunshine entering through the perforated ceiling. Baskets filled with dark green poblano peppers, plump and ready for roasting; tiers of bright red tomatoes; garden-fresh cilantro; and fragrant mangos and guavas adorn the aisles of this Mexican marketplace. Ladies shopping with young children speaking in their native Spanish fill the rows of this mercado. All of your senses are captivated by this magical and mystical place.

The age-old custom of shopping at mercados is alive and well in Arizona. Although not as extensive or exotic as the mercados in Mexico, here in Arizona we have similar splendors. Armed with any Mexican recipe, you can find just about any ingredient at your local Food City grocery store. Owner Eddie Basha has gotten into the mercado action and is doing a good job of providing an extensive list of Mexican ingredients, breads, tortillas, fresh produce, chiles, meats and cheeses.

Sunday is the traditional day of market in Mexico. And on this particular Sunday, I find myself in a modern-day Mexican mercado, right here in Phoenix, staring in amazement at an overly large produce section filled with items that are rare to Arizona -- sugar cane, papayas, fresh coconuts and mangos.

Visit any Food City on a Sunday, as I have, and you will soon find that this tradition knows no borders. The aisles are filled with families doing their weekly shopping. Carts are filled to the brim with tortillas, fresh and dried chiles, meats cut to order at the butcher section, fresh cheeses and seafood. The public address system plays old Mexican mariachi music. The sale signs are all in Spanish, with an English version written in a smaller type size.

Most Food City stores are found in areas not conducive to the average housewife. Leave your inhibitions and fears at home and try a new experience. Shopping at your local AJ's will never be the same! Eddie has all the bases covered.

Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.


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