<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Modern Mexican Supermarkets
Little Log


By David Eidell (07/09)

Mexico is awash in modern supermarket chains. Wal-Mart, Soriana, Gigante, Commercial Mexicana, Mega, Bodega Aurrera, and Chadraui---the competition is fierce. Most of the markets are the same size as a stateside Super K-Mart and the majority of them are much like a Super Wal-Mart in that as well as buying groceries you can find appliances, clothing, medicine, and gardening supplies.

The first generation supermarkets were constructed with small parking lots. Parking spaces with both old and new supermarkets are designed to accommodate a sub-compact and a few have entrance barriers that prevent trucks (and RV’s) from entering. Disabled parking spaces are starting to appear but the signs are frequently ignored. Supermarkets are major taxi stands.

Go along with me to a Soriana store:

I grab a standard shopping cart and enter through the automatic doors. The interior is air-conditioned. To my left are the baños* and ATM machines. Out of habit I select the HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corp in case you didn’t know) machine and slip my ATM card into the slot. The menu prompts are bi-lingual and the PIN code requirements are the familiar four-digit variety. Four thousand pesos ought to do it (about $300.00 US). The machine announces that there will be a modest fee but for foreign bank transactions the fee is waived. My bank on the other hand charges a flat five dollars for all non-Wells Fargo ATM transactions.

*Well maintained and supplied

After stashing the wad of banknotes I proceed deeper into the store. However I must first gauntlet the “Gizmo Kiosk”. Measuring about ten feet per side, it has display cases chock full of luxury items like Victorinox Swiss army pocket knives, pseudo (hopefully) alligator skin wallets, hardboiled egg slicers, compasses, LED flashlights, German binoculars and all the other stuff that is supposed to be irresistible to a shopper. However tempting the merchandise may be, the hardboiled egg slicer that costs three dollars in the states is selling for an equivalent of eight dollars. With a snort I walk off.

A woman’s voice over the store loudspeaker announces some vague savings on milk. It seems de rigueur for store announcers (almost always women) to announce information in a monotone then drop the final syllable one octave.

To my left is the farmacia. Just like shopping in the USA each Mexican pharmacy seems to have its drug “Price Leaders”. In the case of this farmacia I found a medicine that sells for about three dollars that costs twelve-dollars elsewhere. A quick perusal of the shelves revealed neither Dial soap, nor Head & Shoulders shampoo today. Time to move on…

Fruits and vegetables; the department is a mirror image of those in US stores: Identical bins, same rolls of plastic bags, hanging scales (albeit in kilograms), etc. White potatoes have shot up in price (about 19 pesos a kilo or eighty cents a pound). White onions however are cheap at 5 pesos a kilo (18 cents US a pound). Many Mexico guide books shun modern supermarkets---I’ve found at times, I come across produce that is unavailable in traditional outdoor markets. Striped watermelon for 3 pesos a kilo---but the display halves have a rind much too thick to suggest the fruit would be sweet. I pass by Washington State red delicious apples, Gala apples, and Granny Smith apples. Aha! Romaine and butter lettuce, fresh mushrooms and leeks. Next I look over the fresh fruit. Apricots are imported and cost almost two dollars fifty cents a pound. Seedless green and black grapes are a little cheaper at a dollar twenty a pound. I much prefer local fruit in season, like mangoes, and pineapples. Overall the department has most of the basics available in a US supermarket, but of course specializes in produce grown in Mexico: Avocados, seven types of banana, white, red and Yukon gold potatoes, white, yellow, green and purple onions. Watermelon, cantaloupe, muskmelon, mangoes, papaya, Valencia oranges, sour limones, kiwi fruit (Chile), plums, roma and beefsteak tomatoes, carrots, jicama, radishes, celery, garlic, beets, green and red cabbage, guavas, mamey, iceberg, aforementioned romaine and butter lettuce, it’s all here. Sadly there are no exotic salad greens. The produce department personnel wear large green aprons and carry spray bottles to keep the stock moistened. For some reason Mexican shoppers insist on purchasing onions that have the outer dry skin removed.

Eggs are stacked next to the bakery department. A quirk in Mexican food handling has both huevos blancos and huevos rojos (white & brown eggs) housed at room temperature. I am very picky about my eggs so I pass on those from supermarkets (the yolks break when over-age eggs are cracked). The best eggs are those from a local rancho.

Mexican baked goods are definitely different from their American counterparts; pastry or cake tends to be coarser grained than what you may be used to. A tradition in Mexico is the small French-bread like loaves called bolillos. I use them like Italian bread and spread garlic butter and then toast them golden brown for breakfast. Bolillos have no preservative so I freeze the extras. The price of bolillos is very competitive at around eight-cents each. Lately I have encountered Danish style apple-filled turnovers but they are a little pricey at three dollars for a small package. Sam’s Club warehouses have excellent bagels. No English Muffins are found anywhere. Pan Bimbo and its counterpart Wonder Bread dominate the bread shelves. Wheat and multi-grain bread are now common but the price per loaf is a little steep at a dollar eighty cents in pesos. You may encounter an extremely heavy and gooey layer cake by the name of pastel de tres leches (3-milk cake). Many visitors have fallen in love with pasteles de tres leches. Cheesecake is common and very economical---I like to spread mango jam on thick and enjoy a slice with afternoon tea. Aluminum platters and tongs are provided to load up with---purchases are taken to the bakery “packager” where they are bagged and tagged for the general cashier. The packager has a hat, gloves and mask to ensure good hygiene.

Fruit juice is big business in Mexico. A one liter box of jugo de naranja (orange juice) costs ninety cents US. The mango and guava juices are also excellent.

The butcher shop is operated identically to those in a US supermarket: Cuts of beef, pork and chicken repose on Styrofoam platters and are covered with heat-seal plastic film and an adhesive bar code sticker has the weight and price. The butchering area is behind glass and tight seal doors. Personnel are dressed in smocks, gloves and masks I prefer Soriana’s beef because it is both tender and flavorful. I’ll put my order in for custom cut “Nueva York” steaks an inch and a half thick. Traditional Mexican cuts are quite thin. Commercial Mexican pork is inspected and free of trichinosis. Los cerdos (hogs) are fed and tended better than most commercially raised porkers in the USA and you can taste the difference. Sliced commercial tocino (bacon) is common. Beef and pork tend to cost the same, about three dollars seventy cents a pound. Cuts of and whole bird chicken are common and packaged just like the beef and pork. Chicken breasts cost three dollars fifty cents a pound, and wings, a dollar eighty. Excellent frozen turkeys are available during the winter holiday season (about a dollar a pound). Cold cuts include bologna, processed ham and hot dogs. Authentically prepared Mexican cuts such as cecena and chorizo sausage are found in abundance. An Argentine style marinated beef cut called arrachera (not at all spicy) has become a favorite---indeed an addiction for many visitors.

Dairy items include whole and skim milk in familiar date coded gallon jugs (the taste is indistinguishable from US milk); but a little pricey at near four dollars a jug. Mexican cream is thick and needs to be spooned out of a jar. I’ve never liked Mexican cheese-like butter (such as Chipilo brand), but occasionally I have found Anchor butter from New Zealand and then there is a Mexican dairy producer by the name of Lala that packages imported Belgian butter in third-pound plastic tubs. Buttermilk is rare but queso de cottage (cottage cheese) is becoming more common. Mexican cheese is quite good and includes Manchego, Parmesan, Rancho, Cotija, Oaxaca, and Chihuahua. Cheddar cheese is quite uncommon and is most likely found at Costco, Commercial Mexicana or Sam’s Club. A good brand of Mexican margarine (tub or bar) is Primavera (springtime) which compares favorably to more expensive I can’t believe it’s not butter. Irradiated milk is available in one-liter cartons. Unlike the stuff sold in the states, Mexican “box” milk sells for less than a dollar. Irradiated milk doesn’t require refrigeration until it is opened and it tastes a lot better than powdered milk. All of which makes it a blessing for storage in an RV.

Barilla brand Italian pasta and spaghetti are a hit in Mexico. Domestic pasta is quite starchy (even when rinsed with ice-cold water). I pass up on the expensive Prego sauce and instead purchase a couple tins of Hunt’s Spaghetti sauce. Kraft parmesan cheese (grated) is common. Lucky me, I found a five pound tin of tomato paste in a Sam’s Club. It and canned whole tomatoes are hard to find.

Zucaritas! (Little sugary ones) shouts a cereal box with an image of El Tigre Tony on the front (I guess the term Frosted Flakes doesn’t translate well). Nestle and Kellogg’s have been in a pitched battle for years over who will ultimately dominate the breakfast cereal department. Corn flakes and Special K are common as are several other “healthy” cereals. But all-in-all Mexican children prefer cereals containing such a high dose of azucar; it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Quaker Oats is common American-style granola less so. I purchase bran flakes then add my own uvas pasas (raisins).

Rice and beans take up an entire aisle; such catchwords as “Super Extra Fino” are used---Mexican shoppers tend to be incredibly persnickety about their rice and beans. Pinto beans are common except in the south where black beans predominate. Much of the rice originates in the Far East. Brown rice and Basmati rice are hard to find.

Now to the canned goods department: Herdez brand salsa casera is a favorite to smother a couple of fried eggs in (But beware of Herdez Salsa Ranchera which is hotter than hell). I like Bufalo brand salsa chipotle (rich smoky flavor) smeared on my steak before it barbecuing. I “discovered” Cholula brand salsa in the states; then hard-core searching subsequently found the very same salsa in a generic bottle for one-sixth the price. Campbell’s canned soups are common but available in a limited variety. Cream of mushroom costs a dollar sixty a can. Pickles and relish are very scarce---ditto for black olives. I search for and find a couple of bottles of Louisiana Supreme Hot Wing Sauce, but Kikkoman soy sauce is very scarce. Mexican peanut butter isn’t very good, but imported jams and jellies can sometimes be found (strawberry is common). Bullion cubes come in two flavors: chicken and tomato. Cup-o-noodle soups are common. Heinz catsup can be found at some stores but brown mustard and horseradish are a rarity. It seems like every mayonnaise in Mexico has Limon juice added; I prefer to add my own so I am limited in choice to Best Foods mayo, which isn’t common.

I remember coming across my very first bag of frozen vegetables around twenty-five years ago. The contents were frozen hard as a rock, and were expensive and awful. Today, excellent corn, and even old standby’s like Mezcla California (California mix; Broccoli, coliflor, and carrots) are common. The price is about one-and-a-half-times of what similar frozen veggies cost in the states. The freezer department also contains a large amount of breaded and processed fish, meat, pizza and whatever.

If you think the soap and detergent department in your local supermarket is impressive---Mexican housewives have created an immense market for a veritable blizzard of cleaning materials. Some of the older brands have an annoying cloying perfume that serves to permeate just about every corner store in the country. Not only are there dozens and dozens of laundry detergents, but specialized bar soaps like Zote. When used with a stiff brush on whites Zote makes them brighter than new. General household cleaners come in a rainbow of fluorescent colors---Brenda prefers purple. There are familiar and unfamiliar spray degreasers, and Windex, in Spanish. Paper towels aren’t the greatest---most seem to be similar to the chintziest towels sold in the states and cost about a dollar fifty per roll.

Tubs of familiar ice cream are available. A five-pound tub of Soriana brand Neopolitano ice cream costs eight-dollars. The stuff tastes just like supermarket ice cream in the states. Yes there is squeeze Hershey syrup.

My cart is loaded and it’s time to head for the checkout stands: Everything is subsequently laser scanned, and the individual item and total sale displayed on an LCD register display. I decide to use my VISA card. The cashier swipes it in the slot, the sale entered and authorized in scant seconds. I sign the register receipt. A bag person has stuffed everything into large plastic bags and the cart is ready to head for the car. I tip the bag person 3 pesos. But wait! I have to run another gauntlet of tempting mini-shops on my way out. I almost make it but a coffee bar sucks me in and before I know it I order a large Cappuccino. Lucky for me the jewelry, cellular telephones, and women’s undy’s are easier to resist.

Whew! Made it! I put the perishables in an ice chest and then make ready for the hour long drive home.

Hint: Bodega Aurrera is a Wal-Mart off-shoot. I frequently find gringo items en la bodega that are hard to come by elsewhere. Just like in the states Mexican supermarkets assign product “loss leaders” for advertisement purposes. Soriana issues a “savings card” that amasses points for every purchase. I hand mine over to Brenda.

Further Hint: When I use my VISA card my dollars are given a peso exchange rate very close to that of a bank ATM. A purchase worth four-thousand pesos would entail a currency-conversion fee of around six-dollars and sixty-cents---not enough difference from the regular ATM exchange fee of five dollars, to get excited about.

FACTURA: A FACTURA is a government authorized sales receipt that is supposed to guarantee that the business pays federal taxes. As such all non-food items are taxed 15%.