From produce to faux ostrich leather wallets and plastic dinnerware with the image of the Blessed Mother, consider El Paisano Food Mart (3140 Cerrillos Road) the definition of a one-stop-shop.
What passerbys heading to the neighboring Jo-Ann Fabrics or Big Lots might not know is that inside the mini-market, a lunch counter ripe with some of the tastiest food in town (at some of the best prices) awaits. Bustling during peak hours, the counter serves up everything from tacos (all the standards, plus barbacoa, tripitas and more at $1.75 a pop); a hefty burrito selection ($3.99 each); and no less than eight types of gorditas including carne asada, tongue—and about the only meatless option on the menu, bean and cheese—for $2.99 and under.
On the weekends, El Paisano also dishes out both "rico" menudo and slow roasted lamb shoulder, barbacoa.
"We make four pork dishes a day, three beef and two chicken," Mercedes Ruiz, who's in charge of putting together the daily menu explains. "Also, we have about five vegetarian ones, including beef stew." I try to correct her, but she quickly brushes it off. "Well, it has vegetables."
Ruiz says enchiladas and tamales are some of the counter's biggest sellers, and among gringos, chicken fajitas reign supreme. "They ask for them topped with guacamole and cream to try to kill off the spiciness," she says.
Also popular are their housemade chicharrones (deep-fried pork cracklings).
"We have pork rinds whichever way you like them," Ruiz says with Bubba Gump accuracy. "Big, small, even pickled."
Based on her recommendation, I opt for one of the dozen or so guisados (plates du jour), carne con nopales—a hearty, stewed beef and cactus meal accompanied by a side of rice and beans and homemade tortillas for $6.99.
"Wait!" Mercedes frantically screams and dashes over as she sees me take my camera out before taking the first bite. "It's all about presentation," she says, wiping of the rim of my [sadly, non-deity-emblazoned] plate.
The sautéed beef cubes are spiced just right. A decent amount of broth engulfs the meat, just the right amount for dipping the fluffy flour tortillas. The fleshy, grill-marked prickly pear strips are the perfect complement. An ancient food staple dating back to the Aztecs, nopales are still used widely as garnishes, in salads, or as the main dish. Lauded as a natural remedy for everything from diabetes to hemorrhoids, though regular cactus consumption hasn’t really caught on stateside, in Mexico the yearly average is 6.4 kilos (14 pounds) per person.
Here, they’re downright heavenly.
For good measure, I throw in a chicharrón en salsa verde (green salsa-smothered pork rind) burrito. It tastes just like it should and the gumminess of the smothered pork rind mixed with that of the tortilla makes for a unique culinary experience.
“It tastes like…fat,” says ace reporter and official SFR food taster Joey Peters.
Meche, as Ruiz is known by her coworkers, brings out a sampler of chile relleno for good measure, adding to my Augustus Gloop-worthy feeding frenzy.
Out of the corner of my good eye I spot a rack filled with an insane selection of pan dulce—Mexican sweet bread. I resist as best I can but a concha gives me the come hither.
Nopales don’t fail me now.
El Paisano Food Mart
3140 Cerrillos Road, 424-9105
Open daily, 7 am-6 pm