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Latin flavor at area markets

For The Baltimore Sun
Baltimore has a host of Latin grocery stores to spice up your cooking.

The second in a series of occasional articles exploring stores that cater to specific regions or cuisines.

These days, food from Latin cuisines — including Mexico and the countries of Central and South America — tastes familiar to American palates. It's been several decades since sales of salsa started surpassing sales of ketchup in the United States, and every supermarket worth its salt dedicates the better part of an aisle or two to Latino products. But in mainstream grocery stores, the selection is still somewhat limited.

Fortunately, shops dedicated to the Latino community have popped up throughout the Baltimore region. Though most Latin markets are fairly small, they carry a wider selection of products than shoppers can find in the international aisle of a local supermarket.

Faith Paulick, the executive chef of C Squared Restaurant Group, which includes Fells Point favorite Papi's Taco Joint, is a big fan of the store Cinco De Mayo in Highlandtown; Papi's sources numerous ingredients from the store.

"As a chef, I value the quality of fresh items, the reasonable prices, and the accessibility to exotic products that Cinco De Mayo provides," she says. Paulick also praises the store's staff, saying they are friendly and helpful, and make sure the shopping experience isn't intimidating, even for those unfamiliar with Latin foods.

At Latin markets, shoppers can expect to find a wide variety of beans and rice, tons of tortillas, plus impressive selections of dried chili peppers, pickled vegetables, hot sauces and interesting sodas (made with cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup). Meat counters are sometimes small but include high-quality, inexpensive cuts and dairy cases are stocked with fresh, crumbly cheeses and multiple sour cream options.

Though not all Latin stores have great produce selections, those that do carry specific items that are difficult to find in more mainstream grocery stores, including tomatillos, nopales (cactus flowers or cactus paddles) and cebollitas, or Mexican green onions, which have larger bulbs than traditional green onions. Limes, though not hard to find elsewhere, are usually much less expensive at Latin stores than at regular grocers.

Certain items may come in country-specific varieties. The differences between Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran crema, for example, may seem subtle, but each country has its own spin. The Mexican variety adds a bit of tang, with cream cheese added to the mix, while Salvadoran and Guatemalan rely mostly on milk and sour cream.

Latin sausages also have their own distinct flavor profiles. Unlike Spanish chorizo, which is dried and smoked, North, Central and South American chorizos are sold fresh and must be cooked before eating. Though each brand (and possibly each batch) differs, all are at least a bit spicy.

Some, though not all, shops are attached to or next to restaurants and many offer selections of baked goods, including cookies, cakes and sweet breads, provided by local bakeries.

In some, pinatas hang from the ceiling and soccer jerseys adorn the walls or sit, for sale, on racks. The shops tend to be bright, fun and welcoming.

But even with jerseys and party decorations, most of the visual excitement comes from the food, especially in the spice and pepper aisle. Even the smallest stores boast dried chili pepper and spice selections that considerably outperform any mainstream supermarket. A few of the most common peppers include: chiles de arbol, which are small, skinny red peppers somewhat similar to cayennes; pasilla peppers, which are dark and long, with mild spice; chipotles, which are smoky, dried jalapenos; anchos, or dried poblanos, which vary in heat; and guajillos, or fleshy, fruity, mild red peppers.

If you'd like to spice up your cooking — or maybe just add a little something extra to Taco Tuesday — check out these shops in and around Baltimore:

Brito Latin Market

2015 Lord Baltimore Drive, Suite 3, Windsor Mill, 410-645-8262

Though from the outside this shop looks rundown, inside it is super clean and extremely well organized. In addition to a wide selection of sweets, baked goods and spices, Brito sells a variety of pots and pans and cooking tools, including several types of tortilla presses.

Cinco De Mayo

Multiple locations including:

417 S. Highland Ave., Baltimore, 410-276-0004;

1312 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, 410-522-7646;

1490 W. Patapsco Ave., Baltimore, 410-355-1368

At the Highlandtown location of this local chain, pinatas hang from the ceiling and the aisles, though narrow, are well-stocked with a wide selection of meats, produce, dairy and dry goods. A carryout section at the front of the store does a bustling lunchtime business; overall, Cinco De Mayo is one of the busier Latin markets in the Baltimore region.

The Highlandtown location is also right down the street from family-owned Vargas Bakery, known for its sweet bread and pastries.

El Trovador Mercado Latino

2523 Putty Hill Road, Parkville, 410-663-1777

With pinatas hanging from the ceiling and a rack of soccer jerseys just inside the door, this Parkville shop is colorful and festive. Though the shop is small, the selection covers all the bases, from dairy and produce to stacks of tortillas.

La Guadalupana Mexican Restaurant and Grocery

500 S. Wolfe St., Baltimore, 410-276-2700

The left side of the Guadalupana space is dedicated to a restaurant; on the right, the shop stocks a small but comprehensive selection of produce and baked goods along with dry and canned goods.

Isabel's Latin Market

11 Vernon Ave., Glen Burnie 21061; 410-766-0959

This small market with a friendly staff opened just last October. The selection of products is sparse but continually growing; plans are in place to add a smoothie stand to the shop this summer.

La Favorita

540 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville, 410-628-1442

Located in a shopping center next to a restaurant (also called La Favorita), this small but well-stocked shop offers a good selection of produce and meat.

LA Mart

2159 W. Patapsco Ave., Baltimore, 410-646-1501

LA Mart carries a broad variety of international goods, including Latino products alongside Asian fare, and an aisle devoted to pots, pans and other kitchen equipment. The store's most impressive feature is a large bakery offering items that include bread and cakes.

Jalapenos Market

7128 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-766-6869

One of the bigger Latin markets in the Baltimore area, Jalapenos carries a large selection of produce, meats and dry goods, in addition to some prepared foods. Don't miss the freshly made, super-spicy green and red salsas. And if you have a question, don't hesitate to ask one of the friendly staff members.

Linsy's Hispanic Store

6400 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, 410-744-6412

Tucked in the West Park shopping center, behind another row of shops, Linsy's is larger than it looks from the outside. Though the store carries little produce, it offers many dairy options, along with chips, beans, canned and frozen goods, and dozens of hot sauces.

Tere's Latin Market

8525A Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-313-8555

With a deli in the back and restaurant next door, this small market is a good bet for hungry shoppers. Though the produce and meat selection are limited, Tere's carries a variety of dry and canned goods, along with a respectable selection of dried chili peppers.

La Union Market

714 York Road, Towson, 410-296-5940

This local market also has a Gaithersburg location. The Towson shop is small but well stocked, with a good selection of meat (including goat) and numerous frozen and dairy items. In the frozen section, a wide variety of whole fruit is available, including mangos and plums.

What to cook

Faith Paulick, the executive chef of C Squared Restaurant Group, shared a few recipes from Papi's Taco Joint in Fells Point. Each recipe includes ingredients the Papi's team sources from Cinco De Mayo in Highlandtown.

Chicharrones preparados

For this "Mexican pizza," the Papi's team buys the dough, which is wheat-flour based and pork flavored, at Cinco De Mayo. The hot sauce, jalapenos, cotija cheese and Mexican crema are also available at local Latin markets. "The toppings are super colorful, making a playful presentation," says Paulick.

Makes 1 serving

1 chicharron preparado "dough"

1/4 cup Mexican mayonnaise (see recipe below)

1 cup shredded romaine lettuce

1/2 avocado, sliced thin

1 plum tomato, sliced thin

1/2 cup white onion, sliced thin

1/2 cup chiles en vinagre (pickled and sliced jalapenos)

1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese

Drizzle of Valentina sauce (hot sauce)

Drizzle of crema Mexicana (Mexican-style sour cream)

Special equipment: deep fryer

Fry dough in a deep fryer until crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Top the fried dough with the mayonnaise, then add the lettuce, avocado and onion slices, jalapenos and cheese. Drizzle with hot sauce and crema and serve.

Elotes (Mexican corn on the cob)

At Papi's, the elotes is presented with palillos para elote – long sticks for holding corn cobs, which are available at Cinco De Mayo.

Makes 2 cobs

2 cobs yellow corn, shucked

1/2 tablespoon epazote (Mexican herb)

1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 tablespoon white sugar

1/4 cup Mexican mayonnaise (see recipe below)

Sprinkle of chile pequin (crushed, hot red chili pepper)

1/2 lime

1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese

Cebollitas bulbs for garnish (Mexican green onion tops)

In a large pot with enough water to cover the corn, add epazote, salt and sugar. Bring to a boil. Add the corn and boil until tender, about 10 minutes.

After removing the corn, rub the ears of corn with mayonnaise, then sprinkle with chile pequin and lime juice. Crumble cheese over corn and garnish with cebolittas before serving.

Mexican mayonnaise

Makes 1 cup

1 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon chile pequin

1 teaspoon lime juice

1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients and mix by hand.

Lobster taco

Maggi seasoning is Papi's "secret ingredient," says Paulick. Here, it is sprinkled on lobster that is paired with sauteed cactus leaf and fried cebollitas for savory, delicious seafood tacos.

Makes 2 tacos

1/2 cup cooked lobster claw meat

2 teaspoons butter

2-3 dashes Maggi seasoning sauce

4 corn tortillas

1/4 cup nopales (cactus leaf)

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Bulbs from 1 bunch cebollitas (Mexican green onions)

1/4 cup diced white onion

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 cup chopped radish

Lime wedges to squeeze after serving

Special equipment: deep fryer

In a pan over medium heat, sprinkle lobster with Maggi sauce and saute in butter until heated through, about 3 minutes.

In another pan over medium heat, saute nopales in vegetable oil until tender and the color changes from bright green to hunter green, about 3 to 5 minutes.

In a 350 degree deep fryer, fry cebollitas bulbs until caramelized, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Double the tortillas, laying them on top of one another; the 4 tortillas will make 2 tacos.

Divide lobster, nopales, cebollitas, onion, cilantro and radish equally between the doubled tortillas. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze over meat before eating.

Spiked horchata

Horchata is a sweet, milk-like drink available on the shelf and in the refrigerated section of Latin grocery stores. Mexican horchata is typically made with rice and flavored with cinnamon. At Papi's, bartenders combine refrigerated and canned horchata with spiced rum in a rich, sweet cocktail.

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounces Captain Morgan spiced rum

1 ounce horchata

1 can horchata rice milk

Orange slice and cinnamon stick for garnish

Fill a pint glass with ice. Combine rum and horchatas in a shaker and shake to combine. Pour over ice and garnish with orange and cinnamon stick.

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