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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ethnic food: Hispanic markets

A customer uses a money-wiring service while Angelilca Quintero (center) bags his fresh produce at her grocery store, La Estrella Latina grocery on Williamson Road.

Photos by KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times

A customer uses a money-wiring service while Angelilca Quintero (center) bags his fresh produce at her grocery store, La Estrella Latina grocery on Williamson Road.

Aloe

Aloe

Plantains

Plantains

Candied fruit

Candied fruit

Sodas for sale at La Estrella Latina include internationally known  favorites as well as Hispanic imports.

Sodas for sale at La Estrella Latina include internationally known favorites as well as Hispanic imports.

Mexican pastries

Mexican pastries

Store owners Luis and Angelica Quintero plan to expand La Estrella Latina to include a butcher shop and bakery.

Photos by KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times

Store owners Luis and Angelica Quintero plan to expand La Estrella Latina to include a butcher shop and bakery.

food writer Lindsey Nair

Food writer Lindsey Nair

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Angelica Quintero's little store appeared to me one evening like a mirage in the desert.

I had worked late, my refrigerator was bare, and it was about to become Take-Out Night.

Passing La Estrella Latina on Williamson Road just blocks from home, I figured it couldn't hurt to pop in and see the offerings.

Minutes later, I emerged with soft, ready-made corn tortillas, a can of black beans, a 50-cent green pepper and some delicious queso fresco, which Quintero herself recommended.

Take-Out Night turned into homemade tostada night, thanks to another of Roanoke's wonderful ethnic markets.

For the city's growing Hispanic population, stores such as La Estrella Latina ("The Latin Star" in Spanish) are a regular stop for authentic ingredients they cannot find at chain grocery stores.

Most Hispanic markets in Southwest Virginia also do a brisk business selling phone cards and wiring money for customers who are keeping in touch with loved ones in their home countries.

But for cooks who love ethnic food and experimenting in their own kitchens, these stores are a gold mine of delicious ideas.

"One lady came in and said she was a Spanish teacher who wanted to try something different," Quintero said. "And some people who lived in California or Texas [shop here]. They say, 'We didn't find it at Kroger or Wal-Mart.' "

Building a dream

Quintero, 32, moved to the United States from Honduras with her high school sweetheart, Luis, when she was 18 years old.

She had studied business administration at a college there and dreamed of being her own boss. But she would have to work multiple jobs in factories and restaurants to earn enough money to open a place.

Related

Hispanic Markets

La Estrella Latina

  • Where: 3728 Williamson Road, Roanoke
  • Phone: 366-0062

La Bodeguita Hispana

  • Where: 5225 Williamson Road, Roanoke
  • Phone: 400-6350

Azteca de Oro

  • Where: 217 S. Pollard St., Vinton
  • Phone: 343-9677

La Fabulosa

  • Where: 4 West Main St. #2A, Christiansburg
  • Phone: 382-6605

Oriental Market

  • (International; includes some Hispanic products)
  • Where: 5524 Williamson Road, Roanoke
  • Phone: 366-0333

Oasis World Market

  • (International; carries some Hispanic products)
  • Where: 1411 S. Main St., Blacksburg
  • Phone: 953-3950

In 1998, she and Luis, who is now her husband, moved to Roanoke from Ohio. Three years ago, they opened La Estrella Latina, which is named after the Star City.

They decided on the Williamson Road building after noticing that area seemed to be the heart of the Hispanic community in Roanoke.

The Quinteros hoped Roanoke would be diverse enough to support them. Turns out it is.

They are in the process of expanding the store to include a butcher shop and a bakery, where they will sell authentic Honduran pastries that remind them of home.

In addition to La Estrella, Williamson Road is also home to La Bodeguita Hispana, a large market located in the former Charcoal Steakhouse building. Owner Ingrid Romero started her business in a smaller location on Williamson in 2000, then expanded last year.

Other Hispanic markets in this corner of the state include Azteca de Oro in Vinton and La Fabulosa Mexican Store in Christiansburg.

The offerings

Hispanic markets typically carry a range of produce, from onions and tomatoes to tomatillos, plantains, yucca and fresh peppers.

Some non-Hispanic customers shop these markets simply because the produce is less expensive than at large chain stores, Quintero said.

Every Hispanic market I've visited in Southwest Virginia stocks a staggering array of dried chiles, such as ancho, arbol and guajillo. Many recipes call for them to be toasted and rehydrated, then incorporated into various dishes.

Curious foodies may want to wander these grocery stores to absorb the variety of dried and canned beans, rice, canned peppers and hot sauces. La Bodeguita carries an entire shelf full of sardines, many packed in fiery tomato sauce, as well as various corn husks, which are used to make homemade tamales.

Mexican and Latin American sodas in a rainbow of bright colors are big sellers for Quintero and other Hispanic store owners. Their customers cannot find their favorite brands at American grocery stores.

Fruit juices, too, are popular among Mexicans and Latin Americans. They come in exotic flavors such as coconut or mango, with brand names like "Boing!"

The refrigerator case at a Hispanic market is where I enjoy spending time gawking. That's where I've located different brands and consistencies of queso fresco, or fresh cheese, as well as several brands of chorizo, a highly seasoned pork sausage.

That's also where they keep the rich, thick crema, or sour cream, which is packaged in plastic bags.

"People who don't like to get fat shouldn't eat it," Quintero said, smiling. "It's really good."

Those who shy away from the idea of making homemade tortillas or charring peppers over an open flame can head straight for the freezer cases to find ready-made convenience foods like tamales, empanadas and pupusas.

A pupusa is a popular dish in El Salvador and Honduras that consists of a soft corn "pocket" stuffed with goodies such as beans and cheese.

These days, Quintero eats a lot of those ready-made tamales. Her store is open 12 hours a day, six days a week, to accommodate customers who work long hours in the construction or restaurant industries.

Those hours have also turned out to be a boon for people like me, who sometimes work late but still crave a quality supper.

We'll call those "Latin Star" nights.

Got a great Mexican or Latin American recipe to share? Hit the blog.

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