Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hunting and Gathering

A few weeks ago, in my Market piece, I promised that I would write about the regular in-store shopping now available in the town of Loreto. And now that we have dispensed with the relatively trivial facts of elections etc., it's time to get back to the really important stuff like where to buy a good steak; or perhaps more challeging; where to get the mushrooms and romaine lettuce to go with it!

First off, let me be clear. While the shopping potential of Loreto has improved dramatically in the past three years, let alone five, (or even 15, when we first visited here - but that story is for another time) it really isn't grocery shopping that most of you are familiar with. As this week's title says: it is really more a process of hunting and gathering.

Currently there is no one, dominant store that provides everything on your list, and even if you wound up getting it all in one place, you would first have to have visited a number of other stores before you could decide who had the freshest or ripest of whatever you were looking for. I can't say I have figured out any sort of schedule ("we don't need no stinkin' schedules!"), as to who gets what when, and in truth there probably isn't one. But there certainly are great variations in quality and quantity depending on where and when you shop.

While most of us who live here frequent most of the same stores, word of mouth about new finds and recommendations are a regular part of most get-togethers among Homeowners. Who has the best lechuga (lettuce) is always appreciated intelligence, and a new opening or discovery can be cause for celebration.

We often start a trip at Mercado Juarez, near the first traffic circle on the northerly main street (Calle Benito Juarez, this will only make sense if you're familiar with Loreto). Over the past several years this shop has grown in inventory and quality. It often has the best vegetables in town, and delicacies like fresh mushrooms, field grown strawberries (they actually taste like strawberries and are red inside!) and grape tomatoes are available. On a recent visit, I was impressed to see a line up of 10 people at the meat counter - not only a good indication of quality but also freshness and price. Salted butter is almost always available as are many other dairy products. Most other staples are also available here, but other places are better.

Next stop down Juarez is the recently moved and expanded, Loreto favorite, Dali Deli. When this young couple from the mainland opened in their original tiny location, a couple of years ago, they were supplying mainly the restaurant market (the topic of another blog to come). But quick to see the potential of the ex-pat market, they began to cater to North American tastes for prime quality frozen meats and they started to carry diverse products like dishwasher detergent and sushi rice. Last summer they moved into a much enlarged storefront, newly renovated with an expanded inventory and room to grow. In addition to an larger selection of frozen meats (great), and a growing dairy and deli section, plus the recent addition of herbs and spices, this store has made, without a doubt, the biggest contribution to the improvement of our menus since we set up house here three years ago.

A little farther down Juarez on the right is one of
many tortillarias, but we often stop here for fresh
tortillas (bet you saw that one coming) preferring them to the store-bought ones, that are also often made locally and probably are only a day or so old.

Just before you turn off Juarez onto Francisco Madero, you pass the Fruiteria. A couple of years ago this was one of the few places to buy fruits and vegetables and it has recently tidied up and reorganized. But now we usually only stop if something is proving elusive at our regular stops as the quality and quantity of items has decreased. Are you now beginning to see where the idea of shopping vs hunting and gathering develops?

Before you turn right on Madero, if you look left you should be able to see a big two story yellow building a couple of blocks away (which I didn't take a picture of). That building has a bakery on the main floor and a pizzeria upstairs. We haven't had much from the bakery except for boillos (the ubiquitous torpedo shaped buns) but they have a lot of big decorated cakes in a cooler for special occasions.

Just a few doors from the corner of Juarez after
turning right onto Madero is La Michoacana; one of the best Ice Cream shops in town (rumour has it there's a good shop on Misioneros in Infonavit, but unconfirmed by yours truly). La Michoacana has a great selection of housemade ice cream and an amazing display of popsicles and ice cream bars.

Farther down Madero you come to ISSSTE, also described as the "Government" store, and we understand that it is part of social service agency that provides reasonably priced staples like toiletries, canned goods, paper and cleaning products, and cereals. They also carry a variable supply of liquor and some domestic wines of modest vintage but no beer or any other stock requiring refrigeration. However, for basics, it is a good place to check out, although their inventory varies dramatically, depending on when the last truck made it's delivery. Sometimes the shelves look quite bare, and at others it's hard to thread your way down the asiles for the stacks of boxes waiting to be unpacked.

A little farther down the street you come to the city hall on your right, just across from the town square or Plaza where public events sometimes take place in the gazebo/bandshell. Also at the corner of this square is the original Bancomer branch with an ATM machine (don't ask me why costumers warrant their own entrance according to the orange sign). This was one of the town's busiest locations in the "old days" (a few years ago) as it had the only ATM in town. Now there is a new Bancomer branch on the highway which aims at the ex-pat market with some English speaking staff, as well as a new Banamex branch halfway out of town, so now we have several choices for the all important peso withdrawals and they hardly ever ALL run out of cash, as used to happen regularly before.

Leaving the square, Madero jogs a bit and crosses Hidalgo (the eastern continuation of Salvatierra, the main street) and continues south to the big arroyo near Zaragosa, where the Sunday market is held. On the left, about halfway between Hidalgo and the arroyo is a smallish "super mercado" called Chuco's. Chuco's has a bright purple and yellow storefront, and is conviently located across the street from Chuco's Hardware and Chuco's Disco. The market, while smaller than some, is very neat and tidy, with well stocked shelves of canned foods, dry goods, cleaning supplies and household staples. They have a small selection of refrigerated produce and dairy, of course beer and soft drinks and a small gift and notion selection with some good toiletry items. All in all a nice little store to check out, with very pleasant shop keepers. Across the street, Chuco's hardware is one of the best in town, well stocked and organized, but I can't vouch for the Disco, never having gone.

If you do a U-turn in front of Chuco's and go back to Hidalgo and turn left we are on the homestretch of our shopping excursion. In case you're a bit thirsty after all this shopping, watch out for Cactus, a couple of blocks up on your left. Conviently situated behind a medium sized cactus in the middle of the sidewalk, you can't miss it! This is the biggest liquor store in town, with the best wine selection (not great, just the best), a respectable liquor selection with, not surprisingly, a great choice of TEQUILA! There is a wall of beer coolers, and, like most other places, they will offer to pack your cold beer in a plastic bag filled with free ice, the original Baja cooler to go!

Past the next corner, (watch the traffic light, currently the only functioning one in town) on your right is El Pescador, the big kahuna of grocery stores in Loreto, which has recently freshened up the exterior with a coat of paint, a new sign and new doors. Now bigger is not always better, although I must say Pescador has improved dramatically since we were first here 5 years ago. The vegetables are fresher and the selection is better, the meat counter is much improved in appearance (and smell) again with more selection of fresher, better butchered meats. Due to the size of the store, they have the largest selection of all the regular shelf products that I have noted elsewhere and the biggest frozen food section in town where you can (sometimes) find french fries, good ice cream, neat little potato patties (with corn and peppers that fry up into a tasty side dish) along with a varying selection of other frozen products. There is also a second freezer in the corner by the produce counter with seafoods and other entres. While you're shopping, you may be able to have your car windshield washed by the "squeege guy" who patrols the parking lot, if you make eye contact with him when you park your car, you will return to a clearer view of the future (through your windshield) for a 10 peso tip, 20 if you want all the windows done.

Just a little bit farther west down the block on the same side as Pescador, watch out for Mariscos El Cora. This is a reliable source for frozen shrimp, scallops and a varying selection of other seafood. It looks sort of like a house with a palm palapa roof and they serve prepared seafood at a few tables in front.

Next up, again on the right is another smaller liquor store, Panchos. Nothing special here, but it makes a nice quick alternative to Cactus on your way out of town. Small wine selection, most types of liquor, not a lot of variety but all the beer you could ever need along with chips etc.

A little farther west, this time on the left, is Panaderia
Vienesa, a decent little bakery for boillos and
occasionally mexican style squares (or triangles). We have had really good hamburger buns from here a couple of times, but most of the time they don't have them and we have no choice but the dreaded Bimbo. Now you understand the significance of my homebaked bread (see "Raking & Baking" posted back in November).

A couple of blocks down on the right is a recent addition, Big Mart, significant more for it's appearance and merchandising style than the foods available. This place would fit right in in any strip mall in North America and is almost identical to a Macs or 7-11 back home. Small selection of wine & liquor, lots of chips and cookies a few fresh"ish" veggies and some premade sandwiches etc. fill out the inventory around the biggest selling single item; beer. By the way, since I haven't mentioned it before, I may a well point out that beer here is about half the price we pay at home in Canada; 52 pesos or about $4.50 CDN $3.75 US for a 6 pack - no wonder I love living here!

Last stop before you leave town is Los Bartolillos, which is, without a doubt, the busiest grocery store in town, primarily catering to the local Mexicano clientelle. This place too has undergone a considerable transformation in the last year or so, including an expansion and exterior paint job but, as you can see from the picture, the second floor is still in the planning stage. The vegetable section is not as good as some places, but I have heard good things about the newly renovated meat counter, and if line-ups are a good sign (and they are) we probably should check it out more often. They deal in a lot of bulk food here, beans, rice, & pastas, with fewer prepared foods and I'm sure a lot of the appeal to the local clientelle is lower prices on these basics. If you missed buying a bag of oranges at the market, there is often a truck parked outside here selling them on the street.

All of these stores are probably familiar to most Home Owners in Loreto Bay, but I have a tip to pass on for an excellent out-of-the-way fish monger. Given Loreto's history as a fishing village, finding fresh fish is not as easy for us ex-pats as one might expect. Driving around the side streets, you do occasionally see small signs for "pescado" but I am sure that the local residents all have a favorite place where they buy their fish from a friend or neighbour, and have done so for years, long before these other stores were established. That is why fresh fish is noticeably absent from any of the stores I've described.

So for my added bonus for all patient readers who have gotten this far in this weeks posting is a fishmonger, well off the beaten track of most of our regular shopping. It's called Pescaderia Jamel. To find it, head north on the highway past the cemetary and just after the old Jeep displayed in the traffic circle, where a road from town merges with the highway from the right, take the next right at the corner with the Modelorama (beer store). Continue about halfway down the block and watch for a weathered sign on a chain link fence on your right. If the gate is open, so are they! Inside the yard there is a completely screened in work area where Lupita cleans and filets fresh fish for you while you wait. Excellent quality, and to be any fresher, you'd have to have caught them yourself! In addition to the "catch of the day" they also had frozen shrimp and lobster the day we were there.

Hunting and Gathering for good food is one of the unique aspects of life here, and one of the most enjoyable. The lack of "one stop shopping" is also why it can easily take half a day, once or twice a week, to keep the kitchen well stocked. But taking the time and getting pleasure from doing these routine aspects of day to day life is one of the best parts of Living Loreto. Me Gusta Mucho!