What to Buy at Mexican Markets

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 26, 2014

Waltz into an ethnic market, and a little flash of a nation’s beauty greets you from the shelves. In this column, we tell you what to seek out, no matter what part of America’s melting pot you’ve encountered. 

Photo credit: Eric Futran / StockFood 

A true Mexican market is a marvelous thing; you can stock up on Mexican hot chocolate and fat bags of rice, peer into the cold case to pick up crema (like a silkier version of sour cream) or queso fresco, and—if you’re lucky—find out that there’s someone cooking. In New York and Los Angeles, among other cities, it’s common to spy a vat of homemade tamales, or a jug brimming with fresh hibiscus juice somewhere on the premises. 

Food writer JJ Goode has co-authored cookbooks with the likes of April Bloomfield and Andy Ricker, and he wrote a book about tacos, tortas and tamales with Mexico Cityborn chef Roberto Santibañez. Since Goode also eats and shops at Mexican markets and delis frequently, we snagged his pro tips on shopping smarter at them. 

Dried Chiles

Dried ancho chile. Photo credit: StockFood

For staples, “I always want ancho chiles, chipotle chiles, and real dried arbol chiles (the flatter ones are often generic Asian red chiles),” says Goode. Look for dried peppers that are “in bins or big bags.” They shouldn’t be “super dry and brittle,” but should be “pliable like dried fruit, which is exactly what they are!”

Fresh Chiles
Goode bypasses jalapeños—”jalapeños in this country are often massive and not spicy enough”—in favor of serranos, which “are more likely to provide the heat you want, plus they have an awesome sharp, green flavor.” 

Avocado Leaves

Photo credit: StockFood

Avocado leaves are enormously popular in Mexico for their ability to add aromatics and depth to a big pot of black beans, which Goode affirms is an “awesome” way to use these if you find them. 

Inimitable papalo is typically part of a cemitaa torta-like sandwich often stacked on a sesame seedstudded roll. The herb has a soft, floral note with a tiny bit of a bite; Goode likes to “buy a bunch, just to nibble on if I’m serving tacos, though the flavor is so pungent and crazy that I never finish it.”


Photo credit: queerdood, Flickr

These tough-to-find flat, long pods sometimes make cameos in ”the vegetable section of a good Mexican grocery store,” says Goode. “They’re a little annoying to peel, but the little green seeds make an amazing salsa.”

Small, round fruits with a papery covering are frequently found at markets, are “hearty and last in the fridge for a couple weeks, and if you have tomatillos you’re always like five minutes from an awesome salsa.” (See below for Goode’s recipe!)

Mexican oregano

Photo credit: Getty Images

Fresh Mexican oregano, which is distinct from the typical Mediterranean type thanks to a citrusy, almost licorice-like note, makes the list (along with the easier-to-find-but-still-delicious cilantro). Use oregano for chili, posole, and this black bean concoction from an excellent cookbook

One more pro tip: Just ask! Once you’ve become a regular at a market, it’s like any other restaurant: Feel free to start asking questions. That’s when you learn about that vat of tamales, or the unbelievably perfect avocados stashed away somewhere cool.

In the meantime, try Goode’s recipe for a super-simple tomatillo salsa. 

Easy Tomatillo Salsa
from JJ Goode
Makes about 1/2 cup

1/2 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed well
1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chipotle powder or more to taste

1. Set a toaster oven to broil. Put the tomatillos stem side down on a toaster oven tray and cook in the toaster oven, turning once, until both sides are blackened and the tomatillos are fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Let them cool and roughly chop them.

2. Put the garlic on a cutting board with the salt, and use a fork to crush the garlic and salt into a paste. Scrape the paste into a bowl, add the tomatillos and chile powder, and stir really well. Season to taste with more salt and chile powder.