Walk through the doors of Oneco's El Mariachi Loco Latin Market, and the world is at your fingertips. To the right, display cases flaunt everything from jewelry to cell phones. Need an international calling card? Help with insurance or tax paperwork? Looking to wire money? Searching for info about the upcoming Kiko Rodriguez show? El Mariachi solves all those problems.
But I'm looking for food, so I turn left, into the strip mall market's sprawling grocery section. The aisles are stuffed with every Goya product imaginable. SpongeBob SquarePants and Winnie the Pooh piñatas dangle from the ceiling. A gleaming butcher counter stretches along the far left wall, stocked with whole chickens on ice and rarities like fresh pork belly and chicken feet.
All fine and dandy, but past all that, along the back wall, is where you find the treasure: El Mariachi's bustling lunch counter, where it serves up a host of traditional Latin American dishes like tacos and tortas and heartier chicken and steak combo meals. There are no surprises here. The pastor, the carnitas, the barbacoa — all the flavors you're accustomed to are well represented.
Folks on their lunch break step up to the counter, high five the friendly ladies serving up the goods and are offered a plastic spoonful filled with samples from today's offerings. Chicharrónes the size of deflated tires stand next to hotel pans filled with burbling pork and beef, while a flattop grill in the back crackles away. A couple of dispensers spit out sweet fresh pineapple juice.
I order three tacos and a pastor torta — all of which ends up accidentally going home with another dude waiting next to me. As the only two white guys in the place, the ladies behind the counter assumed we were together. After a hearty laugh all around, they make things right, and fix me up with what I came for. The tacos are simply dressed: blistered corn tortillas stacked with meat and served alongside lime wedges, diced onion and green chili sauce. To make the torta, my cook toasts the flat round bread on the grill, then slathers it with what I think is mayo and adds meat, tomato slices, shredded lettuce and pickled peppers and carrots, again offering up onion, lime and chilies for me to add to my liking.
My son, Theo, bops his head to the Spanish-language pop playing overhead as we wait in the grocery's small service area. Chipped metal chairs ring four low plastic tables; hot sauce and napkins are the only accessories at the ready. You'll need the napkins. Admittedly, El Mariachi's meat is a bit on the dry side, and the tacos suffer as a result. But the torta is a thing of wonder. The fresh toppings give the meat the juice the tacos lack, and while the thin, rich bun does its best to contain the mix, I'm dripping pastor all over as I dive into my half. Hours later, my hands still smell like pork.
My wife Rachel has more success. She agrees that the torta trumps the tacos. When I ask for her impressions, "Mmm..." is all she can manage. Till the last bite, when, inspired by a Boyz II Men concert she'll be attending next week, she decides to serenade her sandwich: "It's so hard / To say goodbye / To this torta."
Be sure to watch this phenomenal commercial before you go:
This is the umpteenth entry in Cheap Eats, a weekly column dedicated to eats that are cheap. If you have an idea for a place to feature, comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.