Tianguis, 3610 N. Peck Road, El Monte, (818) 443-3298; 315 Mission Blvd., San Fernando, (818) 361-3063. Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Also citywide. It's Saturday at Tianguis. A live Mariachi band pumps out music while pinatas shaped like rainbows, birds and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dangle above the vast produce department of this 80,000-square-foot store. Tomatillos for salsas, de-thorned cactus paddles for nopalito salad, multicolored chiles and rows of ripe fruit are piled in pyramids that seem to go on for about a block. At the center of the store, a little girl in a lace-edged skirt and lace-edged socks stands watch as hundreds of tortillas move along a conveyor belt. At her side her mother scoops star-shaped macaroni into a bag from a section of bulk staples.
The El Monte branch of Tianguis Market is the largest store in this nine-branch chain (which is owned by Vons Inc.) and has the most complete selection of Latin-style products. But these stores are designed to be much more than simply an American-style supermarket stocked with ethnic goods. Markets play a central role in the Mexican way of life, and the Vons company sent a team of researchers to Mexico to visit local markets. Their findings were used to plan the stores.
In Mexico, only a small, urbane minority shops at modern supermercados with bag boys and free coffee. Everyone else goes to the weekly tianguis (pronounced tee-ON-geese --from the Aztec word tianquiztli , "marketplace"), which is more than just a place for routine food shopping. It's a weekly social event for vendors and shoppers, who come, often in groups, to socialize, eat and drink.
Even before dawn, cooks will have prepared their stewed beans in clay cazuelas , ground the pumpkin seeds for their moles and steamed massive heaps of tamales. Someone will already be patting out tortillas by hand (though the machine-made varieties are widely available in Mexico). The people who soon surge through the tianguis --a huge hall or a collection of tented stalls erected by the vendors--may have ridden several hours by bus, and they will bargain happily, sniffing the tomatoes, poking at the melons, buying loaves of fragrant bread, tasting the local cheese and, above all, exchanging gossip.
Vons' Tianguis markets try to capture the essence of these Mexican markets, though they do have all the usual American supermarket amenities. Because many Mexican families prefer foods cooked from scratch, Tianguis emphasizes fresh groceries. A woman in front of the bakery pats out tortillas and grills them in plain view. At the cheese counter, you can sample anything in the case. Several locations throughout the store sell snacks. One stand offers those long skinny doughnuts called churros and soft drinks--cinnamony horchata or tart tamarindo.
At the snack bar near the entrance, you can get antojitos such as torta al pastor , a fantastic sandwich on a bolillo (French-style roll) slathered with beans and salsa and filled with marinated meat just shaved from a rotating vertical spit. And if you're thirsty you can buy a fresh coconut with a straw sticking out of it and drink the cooling juice.
We in California have been substituting Monterey Jack and Cheddar for Mexican-style cheese for so long that they seem a natural part of Mexican cooking. But several local manufacturers now make a good selection of Mexican-style cheeses. These can most easily be understood if you group them into three categories: fresh cheeses, lightly aged firm and melting cheeses, and aged or anejo cheeses. Tianguis also sells cultured Mexican cream. To try the dairy products, go to the Tianguis cheese counter (not the deli area, where some of the same cheeses are sold pre-packaged) across from the salchichoneria.
* Requeson : Very much like ricotta but with a sweeter, creamier flavor. It's delicious spooned right from the container or used in stuffings, or served with fruit or gelled Latin American-style fruit pastes for dessert.
* Jocoque: This Mexican-style cottage cheese is creamy, dense and slightly fluffy--somewhat like Italian mascarpone but not as rich. It's excellent on fruit or spread on bread with a dash of salt.
* Queso Fresco (some brands are labeled queso ranchero ): A part-skim-milk cheese that comes in two-inch-high disks about the diameter of a small corn tortilla. It resembles farmer's cheese or dry cottage cheese but is a little saltier and has a more pronounced acidic flavor. It's good eaten plain or in enchiladas, or crumbled over other antojitos such as bean tostadas. And it's sometimes used in South American baked goods.