Graphic design has never been as responsible for the successful tone of a grocery store as it is at Mi Tienda. A colleague described the chain of two markets belonging to the H-E-B and Central Market family as "a little like Disney World." That is, in fact, an understatement. Every nook of the store is branded with purposefully faded lettering and bright colors that make shoppers feel like they're at a grand fiesta in a town that's a culinary mecca, but hasn't yet been discovered by tourists.
But even without the thoughtful fonts and omnipresent labeling, shopping at the East Little York Road store this weekend made me feel like I was partying. Admittedly, things don't tend to get any more wild in my life than drinking two aguas frescas at once, which I did almost immediately upon walking past the well-stocked pan dulce case and the cakes that included one decorated with a can of Modelo.
As for the aguas, basics like horchata and sandia are accounted for, but those of us used to seeing little more exotic than jamaica on offer at hole-in-the-wall taquerias will be astonished by the diversity of the 12 available options. I was especially impressed with a combination of cactus, celery and pineapple. In stark contrast to many candy-colored, unabashedly artificial aguas, this was unsweetened and drank more like a green juice than a candy-pink strawberry "juice." If you're going to go that route, though, I recommend the sweet, milky mamey.
Shopping the market is a wonderland for anyone cooking a Mexican meal. Tomatillos were piled in green mountains alongside chiles of nearly every description. Meat is cheap and available in a wide variety of cuts that are hard to find in mainstream American supermarkets, including cross-cut beef ribs as perfect for Korean galbi as they are for costillas de res. I picked up some lower glycemic index nopal tortillas from the tortilleria area of the store.
But for those not interested in making their own lunch, the market has plenty of options. A tiny stand near the cheese aisle sells bowls of menudo and tortillas. But the primary restaurant area specializes in the pollo asado pictured above. Of the shoppers in line with me, I was one of the few who didn't get at least one whole, spatchcocked hen to go. The constant stream of the production line grilling, cutting and piling up chickens was further testament to the dish's popularity. I ordered a half-chicken meal and was disappointed by the dry breast and charred flavor of the skin.
I was far more of a fan of the carnitas en salsa verde. The meaty chunks of pork were just firm enough so that they held fast until torn apart with my fork. The chile-based stew was hot enough to leave a fire on my lips that was cooled with refried beans creamy with lard and rice freckled with peas, corn and carrots. And that tamale stand? I grabbed a bright pink strawberry tamal to eat on my way home—the perfect prelude to a postprandial nap.