by Steven Doyle
The myriad of Latin groceries are growing by leaps as the Hispanic population grows in Dallas, taking over many of the traditional American-style stores that are on the decline. El Rancho Inc. operates a chain of Hispanic grocery stores, El Rancho Supermercado. Its stores sell groceries, a host of variety meats including pre-marinaded carnitas and fajitas, cooked Mexican dishes, frozen products, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, seafood, drinks, desserts, cakes, and tortillas.
The company has stores in Dallas, Austin, Lewisville, Cockrell Hill, Fort Worth, Arlington, and Odessa in Texas. El Rancho Inc. was founded in 1988 and is based in Garland, Texas.
We paid a visit to the location on Marsh Lane and Walnut Hill recently to see what bargains and unique items we might find to use in cooking Hispanic food at home.
Entering the grocery we found an unusually placed wall of pastries, many from the Mexican culture such as the Concha which is a sweet bread roll covered in a cookie crust, it’s traditionally flavored with either vanilla or chocolate — though conchas are found in every color of the rainbow, and are Mexico’s most popular sweet bread. The name refers to a seashell, which is what the best versions look like. The concha and its cousins are sometimes split along their equator and filled with cream or custard.
Also sold are Novia, whose name means “girlfriend.” This a concha where the cookie topping is scored into radiating circular lines, mimicking the layers of a voluminous skirt. We also found Almohada, made of puff pastry, the name means “pillow.” It’s usually a rectangular piece of dough sprinkled with sugar before it’s baked. Also spotted was the familiar Oreja, what you might call an elephant ear and the French call a palmier.
Moving straight through the mercado we stumble upon pre-cooked items not too unlike a taqueria but with many more items. Yes, there are tacos, gorditas and empanadas being served, and on the cheap, but so much more. Entire meals such as a grilled spatchcocked chicken. Spatchcock means that the bird has been split entirely open as to lay the meat flat on the grill. You will actually find many dishes served, and with freshly made tortillas , rice and beans, that might be enjoyed on premises or taken home. And all on the cheap.
Immediately next to the cocina there is a large display of fruits in a makeshift palapa serving aguas, or fresh fruit waters. All displayed in large vitroleros holding a wide assortment of flavors. The fruit waters are more refreshing on a hot summer day than any beverage found in town – at any cost.
The produce department of El Rancho has a wider variety of products, meaning more chiles (fresh and dried) more unusual fruits, vegetables and herbs not commonly found at its Americanized counterpart. We found epazote, quelites, and verdolaga in the fresh herb section, then soon we spotted a vast supply of squash, mamey, large guamabana, hibiscus flowers, limes at 25 for a dollar and avocado bargain priced at 4 for a dollar. Often times the price will drop even further for greater bargains.
The meat market, or carnicería, was vast with a great selection including pre-marinated meats such as fajitas, carnitas and the lovely thin sliced short ribs costillo de res sold at prices that would make Whole Foods shopper’s scream. The best find of the day was large sheets of chicharrón sold by the pound. And you may purchase an entire pig at the market, sometimes in stock, other times you must pre-order. Call to be sure and if in need.
Cheese is not an after thought at this mercado and there are plenty of fresh, locally made cheeses and others that are packaged such as queso blanco, Oaxacan which makes for an excellent mild queso dip, cotija (think crumbly parmesan), panela which grills amazingly, Manchego made from both cow and goat and perfect for a cheese display, asadoro which melts beautifully and makes for great quesadillas and queso anejo the version aged queso fresco.
Depending on the time of year you may find large displays of items to make your own tamales. From premixed masa, packaged masa, many spices, corn husks and large pork butts to fill your tamal. But there are other seasonal displays that will encourage you to make something completely special at home.
There are some delicious staples to be found, and at much lower prices than any traditional grocer, which is one reason to make a store such as El Rancho part of your regular or semi-regular stops. Check out these fantastic products:
Huitlacoche — It’s a plant disease that grows on ears of corn around the kernels in puffy, gray clouds that look kind of like river stones. But when you take this strange fungus into the culinary world, huitlacoche becomes a delicacy used in all sorts of dishes from soups to enchiladas to sauces. Often referred to as a Mexican truffle.
Naranja Agria — This is the juice of the bitter oranges and is a common ingredient in Yucatan cuisine. Used like vinegar for marinades and for pickling vegetables. Although sour, it’s less astringent than lemon or lime juice and makes a fantastic marinade for almost any type of seafood, chicken, pork, beef or vegetables. It’s also delicious in salad dressings and in cocktails.
Masa Harina — The flour used to make corn tortillas, sopes and pupusas, I’ve found this flour to be surprisingly versatile – it’s makes lovely corn crepes and works as a terrific thickener for latin flavored soups, stews and chilis. Make corn tortillas is incredibly easy and if you’ve never tried it, you really should.
Mexican chocolate — Sold in disc form, Mexican chocolate has a distinct flavor – usually flavored with both sugar and cinnamon it is sweet and aromatic and works beautifully in hot chocolate as well as chocolate based desserts like Mexican Chocolate Pots de Creme.
Chiles – fresh jalepenos, pasillas, poblanos, habeneros… you can find them all here. But the real bonus is the variety of dried chiles – guajillos, pequins and anchos – the variety can be a bit mind boggling. Used in sauces they add a smoky, spicy note that is hard to replicate. A bit more work than using chile powder but the extra effort is worth it.
Nopal: In the U.S. it’s more commonly known as prickly pear cactus. Here, you can buy both the paddles (without the prickles) and the fruit. The paddles are often used in tacos, burritos, quesadillas and other savory dishes, while the fruit can be baked up like an apple with raisins, cinnamon and sugar (just don’t eat it raw—it is extremely sour). Makes for a killer fruit for a margarita base.
Crema: Crema is like the Mexican version of crème fraiche. It’s runnier and milder than an American sour cream and can be put in or on everything from tacos and soups to cakes and fresh fruit. It’s perfect for balancing out the heat of a spicy meal or kicking up the creaminess of a roasted poblano soup.
The supplies are an endless feast, but as we make our way to the check out lanes, which always look busier than they really are due to the large families that all seem to participate in the weekly shopping, we are enthralled by the array of pinatas dangling from the ceiling. From Disney characters to some sketchier versions of banditos, there is a pinata for every occasion.
The check out line is where you find the really good stuff. Candies of all sorts. And the best thing about these items is you probably never had them, so it is like being a kid again trying new things. Some you will like, others you will wish you passed on. The fun is in the tasting. Grab a load and enjoy with friends.
Mexican candy is known for its authentic and unique fusion of flavors. Sweet and spicy is the most common flavor found among Mexican sweets. This unique blend makes it stand out from other candies; unlike your American standards Mexican treats are not your typical sweet caramel candy. They don’t overwhelm or empower the overall taste of the candy.
Think packaged salted plums or apricots, Japanese peanuts coated with soy, Pulparindo which is salted pulp of the tamarind, sweet and sour mango powder, spicy chile dehydrated mangos, marzipan chocolates, and the Hershey products marketed to Hispanics such as Carlos V milk chocolate and Tazitos bars made with coconut or hazelnuts.
The journey can be exciting, and you will find new and enjoyable flavors with each visit. One we encourage often. On your way out the door do not forget to visit with the friendly elotes stand just outside the doorway. They all have them.
Stores to visit, and there are many more: