If you love Hispanic food (and honestly, who doesn’t?) but you’ve never been into your local Hispanic market, you need to! But we know it can be intimidating to try to shop for ingredients and cuisine you’re not very familiar with. Let’s start with some background information that can help on your first trip.
What’s in a Name?
If you are wondering “What do you call a Hispanic grocery store” the answer is, it depends. The Spanish word used most often is el mercado, which means the market, and that is what these stores are mostly called in Spanish speaking countries. The word Hispanic means having links to Spanish speaking countries, so these markets might cater to many cuisines from Spain and the Spanish speaking countries of the Americas.
Latin American cuisine is another word that might be used to mean the same thing. In the US, it is a little more complicated and depends on the specific market you’re talking about. Mexican markets or Mexican grocery stores are usually owned by Mexican immigrants and stock popular foods for Mexican cuisines. International grocery stores will often have large Mexican sections, but also have food from other culinary traditions around the world. All these terms are sometimes used interchangeably by different sources.
As you’d expect from independent, locally owned businesses, Hispanic grocery stores vary in size and exactly what they offer. Because most of the owners of these markets are immigrants from a specific region of Mexico or another Spanish speaking country, they often specialize in foods unique to those regions. In some American cities, the majority of these immigrants might be from a certain state or area of their home country, so the mercados may all be geared toward the variation of the cuisine popular in that area. In many larger cities, like Chicago, there is an immigrant population from a wide range of areas and the markets have a range of regional cuisine specialties. A great benefit to working with OjaExpress to have your groceries delivered from International Markets, is you can take advantage of all these great regional specialties from the convenience of your home!
Another way to think about this is, you are more likely to get the ingredients for a great clam chowder in Maine and perfect BBQ ribs in Texas. Similarly, a grocery stores with owners from the state of San Luis Potosi are more likely to sell tamales wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks, and owners from Oaxaca might stock their traditional white mole. Eater.com has a great article called “How Chicago Became a Mexican Culinary Center” that does a deep dive on the immigration history of Mexican people in Chicago and what regional specialties are most likely to be found where today.
Now that you have a bit more background, let’s talk specifics of what items you want to look for when you go on a search for “Hispanic grocery store near me.”
Best Store-Bought Mexican Food
Looking in the pre-prepared section can be a great first stop for any trip to a new grocery store, especially if you’re just starting to explore. It doesn’t take any unfamiliar cooking skills to enjoy and you’re more likely to be familiar with some of the things you see here.
You’ll find most of your local Mexican restaurant menu favorites, frozen and ready to take home with you here. Frozen tamales, enchiladas, quesadillas, and burritos, along with a great assortment of frozen tropical fruits are some popular options.
In a Jar
Salsas, hot sauces, moles, and cooking sauces will all add an instant authentic taste to your table without needing to do any of the prep work. The selection at a Hispanic grocery will be much larger and more genuinely seasoned than what you’ll get at a standard American grocery store chain.
Most Mexican grocery stores, no matter how small, will have a bakery section. Shopping at a Mexican bakery is a unique experience and not to be missed. A variety of pan dulce (sweet bread) in different shapes and flavors will be displayed on racks. Grab a conveniently located tray and a pair of tongs and choose anything that looks good. They bag it up for you at the counter and it makes for delicious snacking, dessert or breakfast.
Grab and Go
Freshly made tortilla chips, chicharrones (pork rinds), and lime and chili peanuts make wonderful snacks. Soft drinks like specialty sodas, horchata and a wide selection of fruit nectars (juices) will quench your thirst. Candy, especially with tamarind, citrus and chili flavored, are always welcome treats. Many Hispanic groceries will also have a hot prepared food section where you can get a full meal to-go.
Cook Your Own Ingredients
If you want to venture out of the pre-made foods, there is a great selection of ingredients for you to use in your own cooking too. Some of these may be available in the large American chain groceries, but the selection and freshness will always be better at your local Hispanic grocers. Plus, you’ll be supporting a small business! Here’s a good list of what to buy at a Mexican grocery store if you want to try cooking at home.
Meats and Cheeses
For the carnivores, chorizo (heavily spiced ground pork sausage) and carne asada (flank steak marinated in citrus and spices) are two options not to be missed. If you’re on the cheesier side, queso fresco is a moist, crumbly, mild cheese perfect for sprinkling on just about any dish. Crema is similar to an American sour cream, but tends to be slightly runnier and great for a garnish or tangy topping.
Chili peppers in a huge variety, tomatillos, jicama, prickly pear fruit, nopal cactus paddles, and plantains are some common favorites. It can be fun to try one new type of produce each time you visit to give yourself a cooking challenge without being overwhelmed. Or, look up the one that is the most interesting and find a recipe before you go!
What are Some Mexican Products We Haven’t Covered Yet?
Other great cooking ingredients not to miss are fresh tortillas, corn husks, dried herbs and spices, masa harina (tamale flour), bouillon powder, spiced chocolate, canned hominy, adobo paste, vanilla extract, piloncillo (cones of hard brown sugar), and dulce de leche. These markets are great places to look for things other than just food though. Tortilla presses and warmers, decorated pottery, and votive candles are some other common authentic items to pick up.
Ready to Shop for Your Own Feast?
If you’re in Chicago, you can find your nearest Mexican grocery store online. With OjaExpress, you can check to see exactly what products they have in stock before your visit, or order online and have it delivered! Using OjaExpress is a great way to take the guesswork out of ordering ingredients for all your favorite international cuisines, all in one convenient place. Sign up today and get 10% off your first order and free delivery!