Thursday, June 16, 2011
The scale of the 20,000-square-foot Mi Pueblo Food Center is overwhelming, and assaults several senses. The bustle of eager attendants and dozens of customers creates a bee-hive hum while mariachi and banda music plays in the background. A rainbow of colors – fresh avocados (four for $5), white corn (three for 99 cents), tomatillos (77 cents/pound) and electric-green serrano chiles ($1.67/pound) beneath bright neon lights, high ceilings and murals of Spanish-style villas, faux balconies and scrub blue jays – present a vivid Disneyland-like circus for the eyes. Intoxicatingly sweet smells waft from the two hot food counters that serve pineapple-marinated al pastor (pork shaved to order from an upright spit), whole fried tilapia ($4.28 each), fried chicharrónes ($6.99/pound) and sizzling caldo de rez beef soup ($6.99/bowl).
Meanwhile, the panaderia (that’s bakery for you gringos) accentuates the aromatic festival. Glowing rows of empanadas de crème (85 cents), flores de queso (cheese danishes, 60 cents) and impressively sculpted tartas con frutas (fruit tart pies, $14.99) rank among the baked goods, fresh breads and pastries made daily; cakes can be made to order.
At Mi Pueblo’s expansive meat counter, an army of animal parts, from pork ribs for grilling ($2.98/pound) to tripe ($1.96) to beef tongue ($4.26) are neatly tucked into rows beneath a curved glass case. The seafood section is equally huge, with everything from chipotle-marinated shrimp ceviche ($7.66/pound) and bass fish filets ($2.98/pound). There’s also a deli counter that offers an avalanche of cheeses (including queso Oaxaca, $3.48/pound) and meats (like natural or smoked turkey ham, $6/two pounds).
Once you’ve loaded up on food, the tequila station – which boasts a selection that rivals the best liquor stores in the area – beckons. The 40-plus brands can intimidate novices, but store director Alex Cano happily recommends high-end gems like Don Julio 1942 ($138.77/fifth), Corzo ($44.99) and Tequila Ocho ($59.98). Other high quality spirits, along with beer and wine, are also available.
The growing grocer – there are a total of 20 stores spanning the Central Coast and Bay Area, including one in Salinas – opened shop in Seaside this April. On my first journey to Mi Pueblo, I am pleasantly overwhelmed by all the options but immediately drawn to a longtime favorite: that spit-roasted al pastor, spinning slowly like some powerful deity reeling me in. I order it in a torta ($4.99) that’s also available with asada (beef), pollo (chicken), carnitas (shredded pork), tripa (beef intestines), lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (brain), which comes with beans, lettuce, tomato, onion and jalapeños piled on a fresh-baked white roll. The sizeable sandwich is both tasty – the best bites enjoy the sweetness of the pineapple and the savoriness of the salty pork – and almost impossible to tackle without splattering your clothes. The carne asada super burrito is also massive ($5.99), as are the number of taco options – 20, at $1.35 each – with eight kinds of agua fresca ($1.69/small; $2.59/large) available to wash everything down.
A couple days later, I return to pick up dinner for two friends and me and discover another bargain that could leave any hungry family of three satisfied: A whole-roasted rotisserie chicken with a vat of black beans and rice, a stack of corn tortillas and a hefty cup of the spicy salsa roja ($12.99).
While Mi Pueblo seemed to go up rapidly on Fremont Avenue, the wider business wasn’t born overnight. About 20 years ago, Mi Pueblo brainchild and CEO Juvenal Chavez made his living cleaning Stanford University science labs. The ambitious Mexican transplant – who emigrated from the state of Michoacán in the mid 1980s – eventually saved enough money to open a small meat market in Redwood City in 1991. But Chavez had bigger ideas: By 1994, he had made enough capital to open the first Mi Pueblo in San Jose. A decade and a half later, there were 14 stores bringing in $250 million in sales. They source produce largely from California, and Mi Pueblo reps say they are able to extend low prices that drive the store’s popularity by eschewing ubiquitous food middle men and buying in bulk directly from vendors.
“For many Latino families, grocery shopping is more than a weekly chore,” Chavez told the New York Times in 2010. “It is an event in which the whole family takes part, and every Mi Pueblo store reflects these patterns in the layout.”
As Mi Pueblo celebrates its 20th anniversary, Chavez’s ambitions match the scale of the store: “Our long-term goal is to be in every community across the country where there is a large concentration of Latinos,” he says, “and an appreciation for the warm, festive, family-oriented shopping experience we create.”
Emphasis on the word “large.”
MI PUEBLO FOOD CENTER 1712 Fremont Blvd., Seaside • 7am-10pm daily • 408-493-0114