Wednesday, February 19, 2014

La Mercedes Supermarket

Every time I drive down into the Town & Country neighborhood of northwest Tampa (previously to take Hackknifette to preschool and now every other week to pick up our CSA share), I notice another ordinary storefront in an otherwise-unremarkable strip mall advertising some sort of ethnic cuisine waiting to be explored. If you proceed southbound on Hanley Road between Waters and Hillsborough, you'll find at least three or four small Latino groceries scattered along the street. It was one of these supermarkets (called La Mercedes, 6724 Hanley Rd.) that caught my attention on a recent trip down there with a sign out front touting among other things "Hot Food to Go". I made up my mind at that point to stop in for lunch the next time I was headed to the farm for our veggies.

Whenever I think of a Latino grocery with a take-out counter, I always envision a place hawking Mexican goodies, chock full of tacos, steaming pans of menudo, and maybe even tortas or cemitas. My experience in Tampa, however, is that the Latino to-go food skews more Cuban/Puerto Rican/Spanish (a more accurate reflection of our Hispanic population) and La Mercedes is no exception. In place of tacos was ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish cooked with stewed tomatoes and peppers that is popular in Cuba, along with giant trays of yellow rice, black beans and rice, and fried plantains. The ladies behind the counter spoke little English and few of the Spanish words posted on the menu board seemed familiar to me, so I had to let my eyes drive my dining choices on this visit. Spying wrapped-up tamales and some chicharron (fried pork cracklings), I gestured to the server for a little of each, then had her add black beans, rice, and plantains (which I think pretty much everyone got) to my to-go container. I also received what appeared to be a bright yellow bowl of thick soup ("for the tamale", the lady told me, although she was unable to articulate its exact origin). Towards the back of the store was a small table with about 4 chairs for customers - it was filled with the lunchtime crowd, so I made a beeline to my car for a console picnic (see photo above).

After opening up my bags/containers, I immediately came to the conclusion that I ordered too much food (which often happens when I go on these little exploration junkets). The black beans and rice were delicious, but I probably would not have been able to finish my portion even after three meals. My tamale was also excellent, sporting a rich mixture of masa, chicken, and lard (it was the only item that I finished). I'm still not entirely certain what was in the soup, but I suspect that the yellow hue came courtesy of pork fat (between this, the tamale, and the chicharron, I'm pretty sure I set a personal record for number of different ways to consume pork fat in a single sitting), and I discovered that it made a great dip for everything in my container, including the sweet and caramelized plantains. The pile of chicharron in my order was large and some of the pieces were a little chewy; however, whenever I bit into one that had the right ratio of crunchy skin to tender, fatty meat, it was nothing short of sublime (sadly, that only happened about 25% of the time). Before too long, my stomach was bulging with starch and fat, so I bolted over to the farm, where I felt the need to eat a raw, unwashed carrot from our veggie share on the spot, if for no other reason than to psychologically flush the lard from my arteries. Still, I'd be happy to try La Mercedes again, although I think I'll give the cow-based products a try next time...

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