The recession may have an upside if it turns us all into modern Magellans. The other week I returned a couple of DVDs to our new Netflix, the public library branch on West 100th Street, and a block away discovered the best Mexican marketplace for miles. Las Palomas is about the size of two hall closets in your average Upper West Side classic six, but carries more essential ingredients than Diana Kennedy ever called for in all her cookbooks.
Owner Leticia Martinez, who moved here from Puebla 16 years ago and most recently worked as a Starbucks cashier, lives across the street and opened the shop last winter. She logs 13- hour days behind the register, often with her baby on her lap, as a steady stream of customers comes in for Mexican sodas and spicy candies, or for just phone cards and a cup of coffee. Our neighborhood used to be extremely well-served for Rick Bayless wannabes— delis on most corners carried Mexican staples, and until a few years ago Stop One on 94th Street was Chile Central. But, as rents have gone up and more hotels have moved in, the anchos and pozole have been steadily disappearing. (Stop One was supplanted by a mediocre Indian restaurant.) Las Palomas outdoes all those predecessors, because every item is authentically Mexican, from the Bimbo pastry snacks to the dried hoja de aguacate (avocado leaf). There is not a Goya label to be seen on the tiny premises.
Martinez, whose husband is a cook downtown at Da Silvano, says she scoured Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey for imports from middlemen—rather than wholesalers—to fill her shop’s shelves, which bear fresh corn tortillas, yellow and blue, from three different local producers, as well as flour tortillas. She does a brisk business in fresh cheeses, including cortija, but especially queso de hebra, like a Mexican string cheese, designed for melting in quesadillas. Her refrigerated display case contains four brands of crema and not just chorizo but also queso de puerco (which she describes as “like ham” but looks closer to head cheese). A reach-in is stocked with fresh poblano, jalapeño and serrano chilies as well as hard-to-find fresh greens like alache and papalo and packages of carne enchilada and cecina.
Crates stacked in front are filled with mamey and oversized guava, nopales and dried beans. Half of one wall is hung with bags of dried chilies and spices and other flavor magic; shelves are arrayed with ingredients both familiar—masareca for tamales and tortillas, canned chipotles—and esoteric—huitlacoche, pickled pork skins, pickled sugar cane. Martinez carries Mexican mayonnaise, Mexican marshmallows and Mexican sardines as well as Mexican cleaning products.
The shop is always cluttered because, she says, her exorbitant rent does not include basement space for storage. On days she gets a soda delivery, you almost have to move sideways to get through. But those sodas include Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola from Mexico, in great demand because they are sweetened with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
And I have not been able to get up early enough to score, but on Saturdays Las Palomas also sells fresh tamales. They sell out fast.
Photo credit: Kristen Mallory