Top Things To Shop For At A Mexican Grocery Store: Your New Shopping List

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

My introduction to Mexican markets was not a journey of taste. Instead, the store that was closest to one of my post-college apartments was a local Mexican market. Young and confused, I spent many months hunting for bargains on familiar items before I began to understand what the Mexican market really had to offer. 

Had I know then what I know now, I would have enjoyed many delicious meals made with fresh, inexpensive ingredients that I simply overlooked at the time. Not only are Mexican groceries remarkably affordable, they offer you a chance to pick up many things that you simply can’t buy at a regular market.
 
Don’t make the same mistakes I did! If you have a local Mexican market near you, here are some of the best ingredients you can buy at your local latino grocery store.

1. Fresh Tortillas

Tortillas are normally pretty delicious. The key difference between the sometimes stale offerings in the bread aisle of your normal market and the hand-packaged tortillas you’ll find in a Mexican market is freshness. These tortillas are crazy fresh. This makes them moist, soft, and delicious, especially if you go the extra mile and heat them up a little.

You can get tortillas in all shapes and sizes at a Mexican market I like smaller corn tortillas as a side to many dishes, while big flour tortillas are perfect for all sorts of burritos and wraps. Look for blue corn tortillas and odd sizes of flour tortillas that you simply can’t find at your local supermarket.

2. Fresh Bread

My personal favorite thing to splurge on when I visit the Mexican store is pan dulce. This sweet bread has a sugary topping and is usually baked fresh in the store. I tend to go for either white or cocoa pan dulce to avoid extra artificial colorings and sweeteners.
 
Another neat bread to look for is the bolillo, which is a small sub roll that’s incredible for sandwiches. The locals might tell you to use oaxaca cheese, peppers, and ham, but I prefer to make a cream cheese, turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwich on my bolillo.

3. Chips

There’s a surprisingly large amount of variance in between different types of tortilla chips. The ones I can pick up at the local Mexican market are cheaper, fresher, and bolder than the ones I can buy at the regular supermarket. They’re perfect for munching on throughout the day, but they can also be incorporated in various dishes in order to add texture or paired with your favorite dip.

4. Chicharron

Admittedly, I don’t tend to pick up chicharrons at my Mexican market, but this is because my normal supermarket also carries them. This snack food is a surprisingly versatile accent to a variety of foods, including noodle bowls, fish dishes, and party platters. Chicharrons are deep-fried pork skins that are often lightly seasoned. They’re not necessarily a health nut’s idea of a good food, but they’re incredibly tasty.

5. Masa

Masa is a dough made with fresh hominy (see below). It’s the best thing to use for making tamales and corn tortillas at home as well as a host of other Mexican corn-based dishes. The tamales you make using fresh masa will taste better than the ones you make using older ingredients. Give it a try!

6. Hominy

Whether you want to make your own masa or you have another recipe in mind, you can pick up hominy at the local Mexican market. Hominy is corn that’s been processed to remove the hull and germ. The only thing that’s left is the delicious fleshy insides of each corn kernel. Hominy can be bought in a variety of ways, including both canned and dried presentations. You can cook it up like beans, grind it into flour, or even make a simple bacon casserole.

7. Sauces and Salsas

There’s a lot of personal taste involved in finding the perfect sauce or salsa. Luckily, your local Mexican supermarket will have plenty of options for you to try. You can find all sorts of sauces, including the famous Tapatio hot sauce, canned salsa of all sorts, and something called Cajeta, which is quite similar to dulce de leche. Put cajeta on top of ice cream treats as well as baked goods (including crackers and sweetbreads) for a wonderful caramel experience.
 
To make the most of your Mexican market’s wide array of sauces, I’d suggest slowly working your way down the aisle and trying everything that appeals to you. There’s a pretty big difference between different brands and styles of salsa, for example. Consider asking cashiers and other store employees for recommendations. You might find a neat trick to brighten up a canned sauce with lime and a few fresh peppers, for example.

8. Peppers

The selection of peppers you find in a Mexican market will dwarf even the best stocked Whole Foods. You’ll find both fresh and dried chilies with an impressive amount of variety. Just like with sauces, I’d suggest trying as many as you can over a long period of time. here are some tips to get you started, however.

a) Guajillo

When dried, this chile isn’t particularly hot. Instead, it’s got a very pronounced earthy taste with fragrant overtones. It’s used as the backbone of mole sauce and a number of red chile sauces. You can work it into chili, curry, and other flavorful dishes from all around the world.

b) Arbol

Like guajillo, arbol peppers aren’t particularly spicy when dried. They’re very reminiscent of habaneros in terms of flavor. Simply throw some in any liquid dish as it simmers and remove the peppers when the dish is cooked. You’ll get lots of pepper flavor with very little work.

c) Fresh Chiles

You’re probably more familiar with jalapeno, serrano, poblano, and chilaca chiles. These common options can usually be found alongside a few more exotic peppers at your local Mexican market, but the selection will vary based on location and season. Again, try everything!
 
For me, the best part about the selection of chiles at my Mexican market isn’t the type of chiles but the quality. Jalapenos, for example, are usually bright green with no blemishes at my normal supermarket. The ones at the Mexican market often have what’s called “corking” on the outside, which are small brown lines that usually mean the jalapeno is more flavorful and spicy. This means that my pepper-based dishes are much more delicious when I use peppers from the Mexican market.

9. Fresh Produce

In addition to peppers, your Mexican market will have things like cilantro, limes, avocados, tomatoes, and onions. Be sure to compare the price, quality, and type of produce with your regular grocery store. You might be able to save money while getting bigger, riper and fresher produce.
 
The Mexican store will also have other types of produce you can’t normally find at the market. This will probably include the following items:

a) Tomatillos

These green fruits are distantly related to tomatoes, but they taste very different. They’re added to many types of salsa and pico de gallo. Tomatillos are fairly unique in flavor while remaining accessible, so pick one or two up for your next dip.

b) Chayotes

If you’re a lover of squash, you won’t want to miss this pear-like fruit. You can use it in soups and stews or cook it to enjoy it on its own.

c) Jicamas

Jicama is hard, crispy, and has a fairly neutral taste. It’s best used to add texture to salads. Try cutting it into strips and dipping it into your favorite sauces.

d) Plantains

These large banana-like plants should not be eaten raw. Instead, look up your favorite Caribbean recipe to enjoy fried, steamed, or baked plantains.

e) Aloe Leaves

Not only can you use these leaves as a natural remedy, you can also use them in smoothies and other healthy dishes.

f) Prickly Pears

If you’re willing to brave the spines to get these cactus fruits, they’re quite sweet and delicious. Eat them on their own or add them to a fruit medley for extra flavor.

g) Cactus Paddles

Cactus paddles are available both with and without spines at many markets. They’re used in salsas, salads, soups, and stews. If you’re impatient, try grilling a paddle whole to see how it tastes!

h) Dried Hibiscus Leaves

You can make jamaica, a type of agua fresca, with dried hibiscus leaves, sugar, and a bit of patience. This delicious drink is the perfect way to cool off on a hot summer day. Try both making it yourself and buying pre-made jamaica at the store.

10. Agua Fresca

You can buy drinks like jamaica and horchata totally premade or as a ready-to-mix powder or syrup. Look for the most popular varieties or try them all to find your favorite way to enjoy horchata without spending a lot.

11. Cheese

Mexican cheese is somewhat different than the normal kinds you can find at the grocery store. Oaxaca, queso fresco, and Mennonite cheese are somewhat soft and melt easily. They’re not unlike string cheese or mozzarella in many ways, but there are some subtle differences that you’ll notice when you buy them. Use for topping all sorts of Mexican dishes, as an ingredient in your sandwiches, or as a base for your cheesy pasta sauce.
 
If you want a harder cheese, try cotija, which is crumbly and not unlike parmesan. It’s a more sharp garnish that you can use on top of many Mexican dishes similar to how you’d top an Italian dish with parmesan.

12. Crema

Speaking of dairy products, you can get both creme fraiche and crema at most Mexican markets. These are sour cream variants that are a bit less tangy and more creamy. Some markets even have a fresh crema bar that allows you to sample different flavors and textures before you commit to a whole container.

13. Chorizo

This flavorful sausage is most notably used for making breakfast foods. It’s cheap, delicious, and goes very well with a simple egg scramble. Be sure to load up on chorizo to brighten up your mornings for a long time to come.

14. Lard

If you want a big tub of rendered pork fat, the Mexican store is the place to go. You might attract some weird looks when your friends and family find the tub in your fridge or cupboard, but you’ll also make some delicious fried and baked goods with your newfound tub of kitchen cheats. I don’t necessarily advocate substituting lard for shortening, oil, butter, and other fats in every recipe you make, but it would certainly make your cooking taste a bit more interesting.

Find A Mexican Grocery Store Near Me

Honestly, it’s not too hard to find a Mexican grocery store near you by looking on Google. While you should start your search on the internet, some Mexican stores have a poor web presence and are difficult to find online. In order to find these smaller, authentic stores, I’d suggest simply driving around your local Hispanic neighborhood, picking up flyers at community centers (like churches with services in Spanish), and doing other old-school detective work. With a bit of luck, you’ll find a print ad or a sign directing you to a new Mexican store that you can loot for all of these delicious ingredients.

Mexican Grocery Stores: A Treasure Trove Of Great Ingredients

If you’re on the lookout for inexpensive, high-quality ingredients that you can use in your cooking, the local Mexican store is a great place to shop. You can find a wide variety of unique produce, high-quality fresh goods, and odd ingredients like lard and dried chilies that will take your cooking to the next level. Best of all, prices tend to be quite low for many of these Mexican treasures. This will let you save money while making many delicious meals.

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Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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