One of the rewarding aspects of a serious cooking habit is its tendency to lead you to some of the less mainstream and more inspiring local ethnic markets. A couple years ago, I discovered the Super Carniceria Del Norte at Maizeland Road and Academy Boulevard.
Searching dusty memories of ninth-grade Spanish, I requested a pound of queso fresco. One taste of that clean, milky cheese, and I'll never go back to plastic-sealed discs of soggy, salty queso from regular grocers.
That first visit, perusing the beautifully tidy display of Mexican carnes (beef and pork in traditionally Mexican cuts, chicken and fresh seafood), my husband and I noticed a little taqueria in the store's rear serving up tiny soft-corn-tortilla tacos ($1.50 each) with an array of authentic fillings and fresh accoutrements. We ordered a few, loaded them with salsas and sat down at one of the eight or so tables. Accordion music, pinatas in the window and a charming hand-painted mural of a Mexican farm set a festive and relaxed atmosphere. We've been regulars ever since.
Bistek ranchero, with its roasted bits of beef and bacon mixed with sliced, roasted jalapenos and onion bits, remains one of my favorites. There's a saucy, stewed version as well as a dry one perfect for dousing with diced onions or one of the fresh salsas available at the sidebar. I'm also partial to the nopales (great with the limey guacamole sauce), another stewed concoction of strips of cactus paddles, pork and green chili.
Feeling brave? Try the chicharron (pork skin) in piquant tomatillo sauce, redolent with flavor, or some of the other organ meats. For the less adventurous at heart (or just those who appreciate heart health), there's always the more recognizable carnitas (plain, shredded pork) or adobado (shredded pork with red chili sauce).
Recently, I brought a colleague who lived in rural Mexico for years and still visits annually. Delighted, she said it offered some of the most authentic Mexican street food she's seen this side of the border. She ordered the plata de carnitas ($5.99). Plata is simply "plate" you choose your meat, and it's served with house-made refried beans, rice and cooked-to-order flour tortillas.
Meanwhile, her son devoured three chorizo tacos. My other guest put away the daily special, a plate of enchiladas rosas ($7.99), aromatic corn tortillas doused with tangy red chili and stuffed with shredded beef, also served with rice and beans.
Del Norte seems to get better by the year, and this year owner Jose Murrieta, a native of the state of Sonora, added fresh seafood to the menu. In the middle of the restaurant-end of the store stands a new tiki-hut counter offering tropical fruit cocktail, fresh ceviche (fish or shrimp) and goblets of shrimp cocktail. Order option No. 3, and you get about two dozen large shrimp swimming in fresh pico de gallo and a bit of sweet catsup (a very traditional preparation, according to my guest) for only $4.50 and that's the small order.
If you don't speak Spanish, you may have to ask the patient and friendly people at Del Norte a few questions to translate your options. Then again, you can just do as we did the first time: Point at something that looks good and say, "Tres tacos, por favor."