After my soon-to-be-ex and I had completed our kitchen renovation, one of the first things we decided to do to break-in the kitchen was to hire a chef to give a cooking lesson. We invited one of my besties, Natalie, and her husband Eric to join us. Natalie happens to be one of the few people I trust to cook with me in any kitchen of mine. After consulting Natalie, it was decided that we would learn how to make gnocchi in a puttanesca sauce.
As the chef was unpacking his ingredients, I was struck by the quantity and quality of the fresh basil that he had with him—as green and as fragrant as if it had picked from a garden that day. Closer inspection of the label revealed that the basil was purchased at Bestway.
“Bestway?” I asked incredulously. “The new Hispanic mercado down the street?”
“Why yes,” replied the chef. “They have amazing produce and bargains.”
Being raised in a Cuban-Ecuadoran household, I was familiar with mercados, but only for the occasional specialty items. My parents shopped at the local “American” grocery store like everyone else and would rarely patronize the small Hispanic mercados that were in the area.
Flash forward 40 years later, DC and the surrounding suburbs have become a mecca for international cuisine catering to Latinos, Koreans and Muslims with large scale supermarkets equal in size to the smaller Safeways and Giant Foods in our communities. Emigres to the U.S. often prefer to make meals that remind them of their homeland so how nice is it to have these markets that cater to our multicultural community, serving as a resource for chefs and amateur cooks alike.
Not willing to take my word? Then let me offer 11 reasons why you should consider visiting a local mercado.
- To satiate your adventurous side. Ever wonder what it would be like to try cow’s tongue, pig’s feet or tripe? How about tamarinds, plantains or a manzano (a small, banana variant, not to be confused with a “manzana” which is Spanish for apple)? If you’re curious and armed with a good recipe, then make your way over to a mercado.
- Bargains for herbs in bulk. The basil that the chef brought over that night to my home sells for $1.99 for 4 ounces compared to $2.09 for a .75 oz. pack at the local Giant. There may not be a wide variety in fresh herbs—the night I went all Bestway had in stock were basil, mint and rosemary—but what they do have is well priced and abundant.
- Competitive prices for produce. Overall, produce at mercados are priced cheaper than their American counterparts. Occasionally an American grocers’ special will match pricing at the mercados such Harris Teeter who this past week had mangos on sale for $1.00 each, the same price mangos are sold for at Bestway. Other examples of competitive produce pricing include:
- Leeks $3.99 for a bunch at Giant; $1.99 a pound at Bestway
- Green onions, $.99 for one bunch at Giant; $1.00 for 2 bunches at Bestway
- Jalapeños $1.29 for a 5 oz. pack at Giant; .99 cents per pound at Bestway
- Fresh Plum Roma Tomatoes $1.00 each at Giant; 1.49 per pound at Bestway
- Bulk pricing for dry spices. One thing about Latinos, we sure love flavorful food and you would be hard pressed to find a Latino kitchen that was understocked in spices. Bestway carries the Badia® brand of food including 12 oz. containers of dry spices. A 12 oz. container of ground ginger sells for $6.99 at Bestway while 1.6 oz. jar of Giant’s house brand Nature’s Promise sells for $3.77. A 12 oz. container of ground cinnamon is $5.49 at Bestway while a 2.37 oz. jar of Giant’s brand sells for $2.59.
- The variety of dried peppers. When I’ve had to find dried peppers at my local grocery store, I usually find one, maybe two or three types. At Bestway, I counted nine types of dried peppers displayed including chile New Mexico, chile guajillo, cascabel peppers, chipotle peppers and chile japones, and that was just for a display of one singular brand. More time in the store would probably reveal more.
- The variety of tortillas. While many of us are used to walking down an entire aisle filled with bread, is it really surprising that sizeable real estate is given to tortillas at mercados? Not only do you have your pick of brands, the prices are pretty good —$1.99 for 30 La Banderita yellow corn tortillas versus 16 yellow corn tortillas, also manufactured by La Banderita, for $1.79 at Giant.
- Where else have you seen fresh conch? Anyone who has ever vacationed on a Caribbean island or even the Florida Keys have seen conch on the menu. And if you have been adventurous enough to try it, then you’ve come to equate conch with fruity drinks and beautiful sunsets over white sanded beaches. Why not relive your vacation by recreating that favorite conch dish you’ve had before?
- Votives of your patron saint. Okay, so maybe this isn’t a thing for every American, but if you are an observant Catholic who enjoys celebrating the lives of the church’s most holiests, well you can certainly find the corresponding candle at the mercado.
- Asian products. Have you heard of the phrase “Chino Latino”? Well it’s short-hand for the many Hispanics of Chinese decent, of which I am one. Unlike American culture where there has been a long history of “normalizing” ethnic cuisine into something more palatable for the American taste bud, this has not been the case in Latin America where ethnic food is more authentic, and in some cases, assimilated into native cuisines—the original fusion cuisine. While the selection for Asian food products is obviously more abundant in Korean and Chinese markets, the local mercado has a good selection of Asian products starting with their soy sauce selection and other sauces widely used in Chinese and Latino cooking.
- Coconut water craze. Coconut water and milk might be all the rage right now (hello, coconut milk latte drinker, I am talking to you), but it’s been a widely consumed drink throughout Latin America and other tropical nations since, well, since the first coconut fell to the ground. If you want variety for brands of coconut water and milk, visit a mercado.
- Cool salsa and merengue music. It’s not very often that a grocery store soundtrack can inspire you to dance in the aisles or even provide culinary inspiration, but if you need that extra dose of inspiration to try to make tamales from scratch or even a flan, than a mercado can help you immerse yourself in the experience.
The Bestway is located at 5695 Telegraph Rd, Alexandria, VA 22303. If you are not close to the Bestway, lookup the closest “supermercado” online that’s close to you.