K.V. Mart's second store in Lennox was even more precisely geared to Hispanic customers. The market maintained a full service butcher who could cut meats in the Latin American fashion and it stocked plenty of variety meats. Many Central American and Mexican customers feel comfortable shopping where they know the owner or are familiar with the employees, so Khaledi encouraged his bilingual staff to try to remember customers' names. Soon he began to call his markets "Friendly Neighborhood Stores" in advertisements.
He used the same strategies for the rest of the stores in the company's expanding empire. Cashiers were also encouraged to relay customer requests to the manager, who in turn had the authority to order independently of any centralized ordering system. Each Top Valu could then closely tailor specialty merchandise to its neighborhood, whatever the population mix. The Long Beach branch on Cherry Avenue and the Compton and Lawndale stores, for example, stock a section of Southern items, including instant Creole roux and gravy mix, hot pickled okra, collard greens and fat back.
HERBS AND CONDIMENTS
* Camaron Molido: Along the costal areas of Mexico, fishermen dry shrimp to preserve them. These are often used ground, and now they even come in plastic shaker-top jars. During Vigilias (Lent), dishes based on dried shrimp replace meat and fresh fish. The most famous of these, tortas de camaron , is an assault on the senses that demonstrates the complex character of true Mexican cooking. The tortas are little deep-fried puffy omelets made with separately beaten egg whites and yolks and ground shrimp folded in. The rich mole that always sauces them calls for the flesh of several kinds of dried chiles and strips of fresh nopales (cactus paddles, which you can find in the produce section, whole or in bags, diced and ready to use).
* Fresh Epazote: As basic as it is to cooking in Mexico, this herb has been elusive in California, possibly because some cooks grow the self-propagating weed-like plant at home (with a taste slightly different from the epazote grown in Mexico). Epazote is now starting to show up in a few restaurants but only spottily in markets. Top Valu's Santa Ana store is the first place I've seen it on a regular basis in a supermarket.
This sharp-tasting herb--a cross between thyme and lemon, plus a mysterious something else--is indispensable with fish, and it punches up the flavor of crab like nothing else.
In south and central Mexico, epazote is regarded as necessary in bean dishes, and also turns up in salsas and even huevos rancheros . It is rarely used dried except for medicinal purposes.
* Pico de Gallo Seasoning: Aptly named "rooster beak" for its sensory impact, pico de gallo seasoning is a blend of several kinds of ground chiles and salt. You see jars of it on the counters at the fruit stands on street corners and at Mexican swap meets. People sprinkle it over cucumber or green mango slices or onto jicama and even oranges. The brand found at Top Valu includes a recipe for pico de gallo salad in which the above-mentioned fruits and vegetables are tossed with the seasoning and fresh lime juice.
* Achiote Paste and Powder: Among Mexico's first convenience foods were recados , spice pastes that women sold in the marketplaces. The recado based on annatto has become the most popular because soaking and crushing the tiny, rock-hard annatto seeds that go into it is an arduous task. A deep-brick-colored paste of the crushed seeds, garlic and other seasonings is pressed into solid 100-gram blocks called pasta de achiote condimentado ( achiote for short).
Achiote paste is most frequently blended with jugo de naranja agria , the juice of sour Seville oranges (if these are out of season, a blend of fresh orange and lemon juices substitutes fairly well). The marinade is smeared in a thick mass over roasts, sides of pork or chickens before the food is wrapped in banana leaves. Originally the leafy packets were cooked in an outdoor charcoal-heated pit oven, but broiling and barbecuing (with or without the banana leaf wrapping) are excellent alternatives.
Achiote paste is most often found in the Mayan cooking of Yucatan, Guatemala or Belize. Cuban cooks prefer their achiote in the form of bijol , powdered annatto mixed with cornstarch that comes in a tiny can the size of a walnut-half. Its most popular use is in Cuban yellow rice dishes where it takes the place of expensive saffron. A pinch of bijol may simply be added to the rice cooking liquid.
* Green Mole: There are hundreds of mole variations; most of them require lengthy cooking and complex ingredients. Many moles contain several kinds of chiles and crushed nuts and seeds.