College Kitchen: Los mercados de Lake Street
The Twin Cities have a rich cultural legacy, impor ted by successive waves of immigration. Major populations representing nearly ever y continent on earth (still searching for penguins and kangaroos) have settled throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the character of these cities is largely created by the cultural interactions found within. Ojibwe and Dakota peoples met with the original Anglo-European immigrants, who were followed by Scandinavians, African-Americans, Latinos, Hmongs and Somalis, among many others. The beauty of an urban area is contained in its diversity and breadth of potential experience. Thus it is no wonder why the Twin Cities shine so brightly.
College students unfortunately do not seem to take advantage of this rich tapestry nearly as much as they could. Sticking close to the University (or bar-spots), we often fail to explore the parts of the city that are truly rich in life force. One of those parts is Lake Street between Hiawatha Avenue and Uptown, a dense tapestr y of color and flavor.
A&E wandered down Lake to three dif ferent Mexican marketplaces, cornerstones of the Latino community. There we sampled and compared the two best parts of most cultures: their spice racks and their desserts.
La Alborada Market
The first of the markets walking west (toward Uptown) from the University area is La Alborada, slightly hidden inside a colorful storefront. The market contains an eatery of its own, as well as little alcoves selling shoes, books and other necessities of living. La Alborada is bustling, even on a cold Saturday afternoon, and its staf f are all very kind and helpful. The smell on the inside is great, and chatter fills the space with warmth. Feeling right at home, A&E went looking for the groceries.
The grocer y section of La Almorada is small but dense and ridiculously cheap. An entire wall sprawls with different types of dried peppers in the back, each carrying a distinct shape, color and flavor. The spice selection, too, is outstanding — by far the best of the markets — with every conceivable type of herb, powder and flower. Truly drool-inducing for any fan of Mexican cuisine.
The panaderia, or bakery, of La Alborada is nearly as enticing as the spice rack at first glance. Rows of sweet breads, or pan dulces, sit waiting to be chosen by gigantic plastic tongs. Plus, they cost only 75 cents, cheapest of all the markets. After selecting a few, however, it is soon obvious why they can charge so little. The panadero (flaky pastry with empanada dough on top) isn’t so much flaky as crumbly, and the inside seems a three-to-one ratio of lard to sugar. The elote (named after corn, covered with square ridges) is delicious but dense and hard to eat. The concha (seashells, fluffy bread topped with patterned sugar paste) is pleasant but missing something. La Alborada’s treats are good if you want a lot of ultra-sweets for cheap, but not the best quality.
Mercado Central, a few blocks west of La Alborada, puts even the warmth of that lovely market to shame. The restaurant/ clothes/shoe/books/blankets/trinkets emporium is filled to the brim with life of all ages, though the bustle gives the staff a rather harried air.
Central’s groceries are the least impressive of the lot, though still fun compared to Rainbow. A decent array of spices and chiles, slightly expensive tortillas (compared to La Alborada) and a small refrigerator underwhelm, but the number of canned goods we’ve never heard of will certainly pique curiosity. The real joy of Central, however, lies in the …
… pan dulces, which are far and away the best of all three markets. The conchas are air y and just sweet enough to delight the palate without hurting any teeth. The elotes and panaderos are certainly rich and gooey, but more nuanced than the pure sugar-fat of the other bakeries. There is, however, a price to this perfection: each of the massive confections costs a whole dollar. One whole dollar!
Supermercado la Mexicana
Across the street from the Mercado Central, Supermercado la Mexicana is more of a traditional grocery store and less of a street bazaar. It stands larger, emptier and colder than the previous markets; it lacks their soul. Even the employees seem distant and restrained, bored from sitting alone for hours. That being said, their selection of groceries is something like I’d never seen before.
The ingredients here are phenomenal, of an incredible breadth and variety. Rows of queso fresco, tamale masa, papayas and tortillas. The chile and spice selections aren’t outstanding, but are made up for by the butcher’s counter — a veritable menagerie of animals past. Without question, Supermercado la Mexicana is the place to head if you want to attempt some seriously impressive Mexican cooking.
The pan dulces are not a focus here as they were at Central, but they are a far sight better than those at La Alborada. And, at 80 cents they are an excellent bargain. The elodes, panaderos and conchas all taste good, but nothing stood out in particular, just like the pastry sections in some other supermarkets that I know.