Welcome back to Ashok Kondabolu's (a.k.a. Dapwell) column, Aisle Check, where he focuses on the concept of "ethnic" grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores? I'm a huge fan of hidden grocery shops, piñatas, and Mexican food, which sounds like a non-existent heaven. Luckily, reality proved me wrong and slapped me on the back of the head when I recently discovered Zaragoza Deli and Grocery, located in NYC's East Village neighborhood. I've probably walked past it a thousand times, but I have a bad habit of paying attention. It was time to enter the labrynth and uncover what's going on in there.
In order to properly investigate, I enlisted a guide, the delightful Mars Ostarello, a Mexican American, East Village resident, and the boss-lady proprietor at the Montauk-based food truck, Montaco. She's also a contributor to MexandtheCity, an online website showcasing Mexican culture and identity in New York City. The lady knows what's up. Mars helped guide me through what was going on around the shelves of this tiny little store that packed more ingredients than I thought was spatially possible.
From the outside, it looks like a regular deli with some oddly intriguing items in the front, like the statue of a bronze greyhound. Whats the significance of that thing? I did a little digging and discovered that this place is a longstanding establishment (ten-plus years) that offers some key Mexican and Central American food and drink items to New Yorkers. This town could use more stores like this. Since Zaragoza is always open late night, it transforms into a safe haven for boozed-up bar patrons who can order fresh tacos, tortas, and tamales until 2 AM. God bless the owners, who have to put up with some serious bullshit. It's also next door to a karaoke bar, so I can only imagine the drunk orders that come through here when the bar tabs close.
Zaragoza is run by a man named Hector and his wife. They were extremely helpful in explaining the variety of Mexican pantry items and fresh produce that they offer. They smiled and nodded while I pointed to things like an idiot. And they managed to do this while serving customers and cooking up fresh tacos, stews, and taquitos at the same time without losing their minds.
"They usually have these things called Gansitos, which means 'little goose.' This is like the Mexican version of a Twinkie. You eat these as a kid. They have this really sweet white bread inside filled with cream and jelly filling covered in chocolate with chocolate sprinkles. Eating these is like being at home, and they're very hard to find in New York City."
"I love coming to Zaragoza because it's my neighborhood joint, but I mostly come for the homemade tacos. The fillings (tinga de polla, carnitas, carne, etc.) are so authentic and delicious, you feel like it's your mom's home-cooked food. They make some of the best carnitas in New York City. I eat here twice a week."
"They have all the traditional Mexican sodas—Jarritos and Mexican Coca Cola in a bottle, which is a bit sweeter than American Coca Cola because they use real cane juice. Sadly, they rarely have Boing, which is super-Mexican. I like to order Sidral with my tacos, which is like apple soda but it tastes a little stronger than apple cider. And I can't forget Sangria Señorial, a sangria-flavored soda, but there's no alcohol in it."
"They have these blue corn tortillas, which I have not been able to find much around Manhattan. They look extremely beautiful, and they taste earthier than yellow corn tortillas. When you have a bland-colored meat like chicken or fish, it pops a lot more. Egg tacos in blue corn tortillas are so much more fun to eat in the morning."
"Mexican food is healthier if you're not eating a fried item, like making pozole—a pork soup with hominy. They also have masa here if you want to make your own tortillas at home and roll out your own dough, but it's an involved process. You can also do this for tamales. In Mexican culture, you do this during holidays, when the whole family is together. The women are in the kitchen, the men are out eating and drinking. Typical."
"The owners here at Zaragoza are from Puebla which is cool, because there's a huge population of Mexicans from Puebla here in New York."
"Nanches are sweet yellow cherries. Nopalitos in a bottle or can are for those who don't want to clean and cook the cactus."
"I don't buy bottled salsa. It's like SpaghettiO's for an Italian person. My favorite hot sauce is Cholula."
"Huitlacoche (corn smut) is a fungus that has a distinct, earthy flavor. It grows from kernels of corn. Duh."
"In Mexico and any Latin culture, we torture the kids and don't let them hit the piñata, but in America people are much nicer and are like, 'Just let them hit it!'"
"This is a molcajete. You grind your dried chiles in here with your garlic, and whatever else. The best ones are made out of stone. Something about crushing these things together and releasing their essentials oils gives off a strong flavor that makes the food taste so good. They're also great for serving things. You can put cheese, meat, and sauces and put it in the oven to create a melting pot. You just throw the goods onto a tortilla after that and you just get in there with your hands and dig in."
After Mars left, Jakey, the photographer, decided he was hungry, so we sat at one of the small tables in the back while he ate a few tacos and a torta. Thinking about it now, it's a lot of food to eat in one sitting. On our way out of the deli, Jakey asked how much a flauta was and the owner refused to let us pay for it while she prepared one fresh for my friend, who has an endless pit for a stomach. We surreptitiously threw the money into the tip jar, and walked around the East Village.