The easy comparison to make is that the new Northgate González Market in Anaheim is the Whole Foods of Mexican grocery stores. It's certainly that. It's shined to a polish, has a wonderful cheese department and features prepared foods sold by the pound from self-serve islands, including a steamy section filled with nothing but tamales. But in a city whose main attraction is a theme park, I'd argue that Northgate González is actually more of a Mexican-food Disneyland. The store's departments are so fun to explore they may as well be Adventureland or Frontierland.
I spent nearly a half-hour deciding what I wanted from the tortillería, a corner dedicated to producing stacks of tortillas so fresh the sweaty bags were still warm to the touch. The variety can't be overstated; I had no idea there could be so many kinds. Some tortillas were tinted green with Hatch chiles; others had nopales embedded in them. But did I want the usual discs? Or should I get the thick ones reserved for gorditas? Or maybe the oblong ones for huaraches? I finally settled on a stack of yellow corn tortillas for less than $2. It made at least a dozen tacos and fed me for a week.
For filling those tacos, I headed to the carnicería, a department that looked as though it were paved in red meat. There was chicken and pork, for sure, but beef was clearly the E-ticket attraction. There were slabs from every conceivable part of the cattle, some already marinated and ready for grilling. I took a pound of carne de res, preseasoned taco meat cut into tiny cubes and mixed with diced onions and chiles. When I asked the counter person how I should prepare it, she smiled. "Just fry it in a pan with a little bit of oil!" she said in English, motioning as though she had a spatula in her hand. "No need to add anything. It's already got everything in it!"
Everyone at Northgate (which employs our Mexican-in-Chief's dad as a truck driver) was as exceedingly helpful as she was. At the champurrado cart, a woman offered me a warm cup of not only the masa-based hot chocolate drink that's more nourishing in cold weather than mother's milk, but also ponche, a soothingly warm spiced cider with chunks of fruit floating in it. Then, at the hot foods counter, when I pointed at the bubble-crusted empanadas behind the glass, the attendant gave me not only a taste, but also almost half of an entire one to eat right there in front of her. "Do you like it?" she inquired, cocking her head as I devoured the beef-filled fried pastry pocket while its hot juices dribbled down my arm.
"Yes! I'll take that one and also the spinach!"
Later, at a stand in the middle of the produce section, another woman gave me a heaping mound of fresh guacamole that she managed to fit onto a chip. When I asked for a tub, she mixed it to order with as few or as many chopped green chiles as I wanted. To pair with it, I picked up an unreasonably tall bag of the store's tortilla chips, fried that same day. As I discovered later, they are impossible to resist, even when the guacamole's gone.
Then there was the section of agua frescas, perhaps my favorite Northgate "land" of all. All the flavors here were free for the tasting, each gulp somehow more refreshing than the fruit from whence it came. I've since decided the pineapple was immaculate and the best way to have it was in its largest size, poured into a huge plastic pitcher secured with a screwed-on lid, equipped with a flip-top spout and completely worth the $6 price.
It would take another month to try all of the wonderful 69 cents-per-piece pan dulces from the self-serve bakery. And it would take at least a dozen more visits to explore the taquería beyond the al pastor burrito I had, or even to begin to touch the myriad of ceviches and cocteles from the seafood department. But I'm still dreaming of the chicharrones de panza I tried from the deli. They turned out to be whole deep-fried crispy lengths of pork belly that, when chopped up, tasted just like Filipino lechon kawali.
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I should also add that although this spiffy new Northgate González is a Ritz-Carlton compared to the one I usually frequent in SanTana, the prices between all the stores in the chain are comparable. In fact, I've not seen a lower price for the little-known tropical fruit called rambutan anywhere else, even in Little Saigon. And on average, I've found that my grocery bill here has hovered below a usual trip to Stater Bros.—try to do that at Whole Paycheck.
Northgate González Market, 2030 E. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 507-7640; www.northgatemarkets.com. Open daily, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Meal for two, $10-$20, food only.