Foraging through San Miguel's retail haystack

Americans may brag about their huge, brightly lit, centrally located markets, but in San Miguel we have something far more interesting and fun yet: An endless collection of hole-in-the-wall family enterprises, scattered mostly along cobweb streets that radiate from the two central markets, and where you typically transact business under a fifteen-watt bulb.

You need to find them first—there are no shopping guides or chamber of commerce maps—so you rely on word-of-mouth or the famously nebulous directions that Mexicans on the street will gladly provide even if they have no clue what you are saying or looking for. This preliminary reconnoitering might take as long as the shopping itself.

One of two steamers filled with tamales, about thirty total, half
stuffed with chicken and the rest with pork. Good stuff but
a lot of work. 

After eleven years in San Miguel, Stew and I have amassed a mental Rolodex of service and merchandise providers beyond the usual, such as roasted chicken vendors—there must be two hundred of them in San Miguel—or lumber yards or glass stores.

Here we are talking about micro-businesses such as that of an attractive middle-aged woman who shows up every working day, at around eight in the morning, to sell fresh empanadas out of a pickup truck under the shade of a patio umbrella.  Cochinita Pibil, a type of seasoned pork, is my favorite. Hawaiian empanadas, a creation involving pineapple chunks and jalapeños, not so much.

Or the chubby, one-legged and somewhat sketchy guy who hawks very good Oaxacan tamales wrapped in banana leaves, that he keeps stashed in the trunk of his car as if they were contraband. They may well be. Count your money and your tamales as you walk away.

On Monday Stew and I went looking for what we thought were two common ingredients for tamales that became a short tour of some of these tiny shops.

We have two large supermarkets but the most authentically Mexican grocery store, located near the town center, is the appropriately named Bonanza. It’s a marvel of space management, its shelves reaching almost up to the ceiling like the bookshelves of an old library, the merchandise sometimes reachable only by step ladder or with a pole with a pincer at the end. Bonanza must cram almost as much merchandise as its larger competitors, but in only one-fourth the space.

But Bonanza is too large to qualify as a mom-and-pop operation.

We’re talking about Plastimundo, which sells plastic and styrofoam containers, cups, plates and nothing but. A store nearby sells plastic bags by weight. A kilo will keep you going for a lifetime with enough bags left to line your coffin. Wrapping paper and ribbons are available at a closet-size shop whose colorful merchandise hangs overhead and spills onto the sidewalk. You must duck your head to get inside. Sheets of copper? We have that too. One vendor specializes in nuts and bolts, and another in rubber hoses. A off-brand drug store offers the services of an in-house psychologist, by the half hour, appointment required.

Hundreds of needles in a retail haystack, all waiting to be found.

My favorite is ominously called “The Volcano,” on Canal Street. It specializes in insecticides and other chemical concoctions, a few of them no doubt banned in the U.S. twenty years ago. The sulfurous smells coming from El Volcán alone are enough to knock out some endangered bird across the street.
Our cleaning woman recommended a roach killer as the most effective. Betcha. It comes in a plastic jug with a long epistle of warnings about accidental intoxication of humans, pets, plants and most assuredly roaches.

The first tamal ingredient we were searching for was pork lard. Not trans-free, vegetable or some other sissy shortening in a fancy wrapper, but the real stuff you need for the dough. The kind you can smear on your bicycle’s gears if there’s any left over.

None of the mainline stores carried pork lard, not even a fairly large butcher shop that referred us to a carnitas vendor on the curving, inclined street leading to the San Juan de Dios Market.

“How many kilos do you want?” the young man asked.

With some embarrassment I asked for only, hmm, two-hundred grams, which he went and fetched, bringing me a Ziploc bag holding a whitish, congealed substance. Real lard. Twenty pesos or a little more than a dollar. A deal.

Finding the corn husks required three or four inquiries and took us clear across to the other side of the market, near a bridge over what is euphemistically called an “arroyo,” or creek, but whose real function is betrayed by the sewage smell.

We found a specialty store that could be called “Tamales ‘r Us”. It had mountains of husks, sold in packages of four bundles. Another twenty pesos down the hole, plus five more for a small bag of pumpkin seeds. This storefront, about fifteen by fifteen feet, and presided by an affable guy with his ten or eleven-year-old son, also had shelves with jars of exotic ingredients for your tamales.

Finally we needed to rent a long table and folding chairs, which Félix readily found in his village. He mentioned there were two rental places but a newer one, operating out of someone’s garage, had lower prices. A table and ten chairs, with two table cloths, came to a whopping two-hundred pesos or about ten bucks, delivery not included.

“It used to be more, but competition is bringing down the prices,” Félix observed gravely.

Ah, I thought, Uncle Miltie Friedman must be smiling in his grave.


12 thoughts on “Foraging through San Miguel's retail haystack

  1. Anonymous

    Let us know how the tamales turn out. Here in Phoenix, they have suffered a horrible fate. The local tamal shop is now run by Anglos who are health nuts. They make tamales without salt or lard. It is like eating saw dust.We used to buy tamales from a lady that went around the neighborhood selling them out of a bucket. She had a hot rock in the bottom to keep them hot. She has since disappeared. Gone no one knows where.PS How are the hearing aid working out?Robert GillPhoenix, Arizona


  2. I take it that you have made tamales before. It is a lot of work! A couple years ago, on one of my trips to CDMX, my friend, his mom and I spent a day making a big batch. It took most of the day. First we went to a little store that grinds the corn meal and sells the corn husks, and then to the market for the lard and all the ingredients for the fillings. My job was to mix the dough… my hands in the gooey mixture of “masa” and lard for what seemed like forever. Then adding the fillings, wrapping them in the husks and steaming them. It was a fun experience, and the finished product was delicious, but, frankly, I would never attempt to make them on my own. When I have a taste for tamales, I go to a little restaurant in CDMX that specializes in them. They have dozens of different varieties. “Buen provecho!”


  3. Robert: The tamales turned out very well. The recipes we read all insisted in using lard for flavor and consistency. The filling also has to be pretty spicy to stand up to the dough which doesn't have much taste. Rick Bayless, a famous Chicago chef who specializes in Mexican food, has a good recipe on the internet for chicken tamales.Try it!al


  4. Amen! It was a mess and a whole afternoon of screwing around (not including looking for the lard and the corn husks) but the result was great. Even Félix' wife, not a shabby cook, said they were good but too small. I don't think we're going for an encore any time soon.


  5. Anonymous

    Yes, it is a lot of work and a real mess. The ladies always ask for our help, but then they condemn our work. It is best to sit it out. We can't do anything right.Robert GillPhoenix, Arizona


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