Fruit Fetish

Years ago I discovered a little hole-in-the-wall bakery on 16th Street. The bread is terrific. But what really got my attention was the lady standing in front of the building.

Maybe five feet tall, she had a solid and plump build. Her skin was very dark, partly from her genes, and partly from the grueling and unforgiving sun she endured for hours on end. She wore a simple dress covered by a homemade apron. On her feet were the cheap sandals one would find at the swap meet for a dollar. Rosa stood there for hours selling her mangos speared with a stick and then cut into the shape of a flower, drizzled with fresh lime juice, a touch of salt and as much chile powder as you could stand. A dilapidated red and yellow umbrella tied to the body of a stolen Food City shopping cart carried her goods.

For two dollars I bought one of her creations and stood there with mango juice dripping onto my chef's coat, talking to this sweet little lady from El Salvador who was trying to make a living by selling mangos. The problem was that Rosa had no permit to sell her treats, nor the approval of the Maricopa County Health Department. "I see them coming and I run like hell and hide," she shared. Like Rosa, there are dozens of street vendors who illegally sell their goods on the streets of Mesa and Phoenix.

I tried going back to buy Rosa's mangos a few times, but later found out that the police had kept coming and not only made her move, but destroyed her goods. After a while the routine just got too expensive for her and she moved on. Rosa's mangos lingered in my memory for years.

Last week I was watering my plants outside my cafe. As on any typical Saturday, the street was busy with foot traffic. I noticed that a crowd was gathered around the back of a beat-up station wagon in the parking lot next door. And there stood Rosa, selling not only mangos, but all kinds of fruit: papaya, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, jicama and coconut all drizzled with fresh lime, a hint of salt and as much chile powder as you could stand.

Gone is the rusty Food City cart and falling-apart umbrella. The new-and-improved Rosa has a station wagon now to keep her mobile just in case the chota is around. As with all good sales people, she recognized me and asked if I was having my usual mango. Service like this surely is not available at those big-name chain restaurants.

I stood there in the parking lot, standing next to a beat-up multicolored station wagon, eating my flower-shaped mango-on-a-stick, mango juice dripping down my chef's coat. Only in Phoenix can you find this pure and unadulterated culinary bliss. By Silvana Salcido Esparza

The author is a local chef and restaurant owner.