Cafe Reviews

Mercado Madness

I've had it up to here with work, so I've decided to phone in my column from the thriving Mexican city in which I'm vacationing. I'm seated on a long, brown and green picnic table with clusters of Hispanic families and couples, all speaking so fast in Spanish that about 99.9 percent of it goes right over my head. Before me is a bowl of birria, hunks of tender top sirloin stewed in a reddish-brown broth so savory that I know I'm going to lap it all up. Beside this bowl is a stack of freshly made corn tortillas, and beside this stack, a jumbo glass of coconutty agua fresca. The horns of mariachi music are trumpeting in my ears, and nearby, an exquisite, sloe-eyed beauty smiles coyly at me. Phoenix and those endless deadlines seem a thousand miles away.

Then my daydream bursts, and I'm dead-smack in central Phoenix, yet ironically, still in that thriving Mexican city. This one happens to be at the northeast corner of 16th Street and Roosevelt, a burg of some 400 workers on a massive sales floor of 53,000 square feet. I'm talking, of course, of the barely four-months-old Phoenix Ranch Market, the fourth and largest Ranch Market so far in Arizona, brought to us by the California-based Hispanic supermercado empire of Pro and Sons.

What, did you think I would take a George W.-like vacay, as do my food-scribbler rivals? Never, amigos! I eat to write and write to eat, all for the greater glory of our beloved PHX.

Thing is, visiting this blockbuster superstore, with its own bakery, food court, pescadería, carnicería and so on, is a little like traveling to a Mexican town, save for the crucial fact that many of the staffers are bilingual. If my cockeyed Spanglish is not understood by one of the employees, they can usually revert to English, or find someone who can. Otherwise, once you pass through the doors of Ranch Market, you pass into another world almost, a magical, cross-cultural experience by which you cannot help but be transported.

Surely, you can have such experiences elsewhere, in smaller, more concentrated doses. But the full-on sensory overload of Ranch Market is awe-inspiring. The sections I enjoy inspecting the most are the produce area and the meat market, or carnicería, each on opposite sides of the building's vast expanse. The produce department beats any I've ever seen in the Valley, both in the freshness and variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as in the display and overabundance. Some folks refer to RM as the "Mexican AJ's," but from what I've seen, RM's produce section blows that "purveyor of fine foods" out of the proverbial agua.

There are overflowing shelves of Key limes, jalapeños, radishes, apples, and so on. Whole barrels of sugar cane, yuca root, jicama, and one of tied sticks of cinnamon, almost begging you to pick them up and smell them. One cart offers fat, pumpkin-like squash called cabeza de Castilla, and behind it are two rows of different types of dried chiles, including dark reddish-brown guajillos and big black pasillas. Next to these sit shelves of deep-purple jamaica (hibiscus) and pale brown tamarindo. You've got your choice of coconuts, white or brown, as well as two different kinds of plantains and yams. Mexican food lovers will delight in the huge piles of tomatillos and stacks of pale green chayote. And on the "wet rack" are all the veggies and greenery you'd find at Fry's and then some -- lettuce, carrots, kale, hearts of romaine, everything arranged neatly, with an eye-catching appeal, in subsections that equal you in height.

If grade schools still do field trips, then the carnicería is tailor-made for them. One side of the long meat aisle is prepackaged viands, but the other side is where all the fun's to be had, with windowed containers where you can see everything from run-of-the-mill steaks and brisket to a whole, skinless beef head, its mouth clutching an ear of corn, as well as a tomato-biting pig noggin, fashioned from ground, reddish-orange chorizo, with small onions for eyes. Another must-see: a window of beef tongues straight from Elsie's kisser, each of which looks at least 18 inches long.

I'm less impressed with the pescadería, which doesn't look like it'll be putting Serrano's (near 16th Street and Osborn) out of business anytime soon. Still, the mariscos counter Ranch Market has set up next to the pescadería serves some decent ceviches. I particularly liked the spicy agua chile tostada, as well as these little empanada-like pescadillas, filled with shrimp and served hot with a red or green chile sauce. The coctel de camarón was a disappointment, however, the shrimp as stiff as cardboard. I'll be interested to see how the seafood fares at the full-service restaurant Ranch Market is building adjacent to the mercado, which execs there tell me will open sometime next year.

Back on the other side of the building, near produce, is La Cocina, "the kitchen," more like a cafeteria, where you can order everything from tortas milanesa to the birria mentioned above. In front of it are picnic tables, where you can stuff yourself like a piñata with the pot-roast-like chile colorado, or tangy chile verde with chunks of pork in a green tomatillo-based sauce. A whole bowl of birria with tortillas will set you back a mere $5.49. And three tacos, with your choice of five different fillings, only $2.79. The tortillas, which an immense machine pumps out nonstop, are fairly standard in quality, not beating out Carolina's, by any means, but still not bad. Certainly the fillings, especially the pastor and the cabeza, hold their own with many smaller vendors.

For libations, head directly to the straw-roofed agua fresca stand, with 12 different ones in big plastic jugs, from green limonada and ruby red sandia (watermelon) to orangish papaya and milky-pink fresa (strawberry). The panadería (bakery) next door has tres leches cakes, churros, and an endless supply of sweetbreads for dessert. Or sashay over to the cafe/ice cream parlor, and ask for a syrupy-ice known as a raspado.

Ranch Market is like a walk-through encyclopedia of Mexican food, one we should all check out, even if we can't shop there all the time. Besides, it's perfect for vacations of just an hour or two.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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