When was the last time you heard a supermarket described as "a giant party"? If you're from the Boston area like me, probably never. Unless you hear references to the Donner Party getting it right because cannibalism is more attractive than shopping in tiny aisles full of aggressive cart-pushers.
I'm in the West for the winter, though, where the rules for grocery stores are different. When I heard Pros Ranch Market in Phoenix described as a kind of festival full of cheap Mexican food, I made a b-line.
[Photo credit: Ranch Market y Tradiciones, by phxpma]
Yes indeed, it's just like a kid's birthday party with a noisy Mexican soundtrack and multi-colored streamers on the ceiling fans. The difference is the grownups go home the prizes: tamales and fresh masa and a tongue-sizzling array of chili peppers. Half the store is given to Mexican-accented groceries, with separate departments for bakery items, fruity drinks, fish and a killer meat counter, and the other half is a food court.
[Photo credit: Aguas Frescas, by phxpma]
When I say food court, I don't mean Sbarro and Quiznos. I mean these guys are making their own food and selling it fast and cheap. A massive grill is lined with split chickens. A volcano-sized molcajete brims with fresh guacamole. Back by the fish department, tanks are swimming with live fish – you can bet those tilapia are leaping straight from the water into your cabbage-lined fish taco. And you, humble shopper, can have these delights in exchange for a few dollars. A quintet of soft tortillas filled with freshly made carne asada or chicken or carnitas and smothered with sauces is about $4.
And the tortillas! They make both corn and flour tortillas fresh, beginning with whole ears of corn. That's right, they roll in massive bins of corn on the cob, shuck it, boil it, work their masa magic, and out from a big conveyor belt come hot tortillas, straight into bags and left to gently cool on the shelf. I haven't felt anything so warm and comforting since the moment before I was born.
[Photo credit: Tortilla Machine, by seantoyer]
While most American supermarkets give more floor space to ads and counter space to vegetables that look and taste just like wax, Ranch Market is a treat. After all, who wants to do weekly grocery shopping when they can go to a fiesta instead?