Mercado de la Raza Spotlights Local Latin Food Makers
The shop’s new owners have launched a monthly pop-up series at the Beretania store. Coming Saturday, May 27: locally made Mexican sweet breads.
When Megahn Chun and Alex Villarino took over Mercado de la Raza last December, they brought to the Beretania Street icon a new mission. Martha Sanchez Romero had opened Hawai‘i’s first Latin foods store in 1994, stocking it with goods from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Sanchez Romero’s handmade tamales, available on some Saturdays, always sold out; and she eventually stocked over a thousand items—everything from fresh plantains, dried and fresh chiles and Mexican cheeses to Jarritos sodas, corn tortillas from East Los Angeles and ingredients to make micheladas.
Now Chun, of Honolulu, and Villarino, of Mexico City, are thinking even bigger. The new owners are helping tiny food producers scale up with Marchantes Latin@s, a monthly in-store pop-up series that spotlights Latin products made by local Latinos.
The next Marchantes is this Saturday, May 27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will feature Antonio and Carina Santiago of Panaderia Santiago. The couple, from Oaxaca, make Mexican conchas—sweet breads with a crumbly cookie topping.
Villarino and Chun created the pop-ups after reading an article that highlighted Latino-Americans’ barriers to entrepreneurship and capital. “Marchantes Latin@s is our solution for this problem,” Villarino says, “to help Latino businesses incubate business ideas, scale and get their products to market. We want to highlight and champion concepts that are authentically Latino… and to showcase the work of those not invited to the conversation.”
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If Saturday’s pop-up is anything like the first two, you can expect a delicious glimpse into a Latin culture, and maybe a little bit more. The series started in March with Aloha Alfajores, an ‘Ewa Beach business of Colombian cookies made by Andrea Smith. Alfajor sandwich cookies vary from country to country. Smith’s are pillowy soft and crumble in your mouth, interrupted only by the dulce de leche in between. While the cookies are the star in the alfajores, the dulce de leche steals the show in Smith’s Special Brownies. Bite in, and just as the deep caramel flavor registers, milky sweetness and tart, creamy cheesecake comes in for an interesting contrast. Mercado de la Raza now sells Smith’s alfajores among other versions from other countries, but in my opinion, Aloha Alfajores are the best.
Raiz Tortillas was April’s featured food producer. Ramón “Ray” Germán’s business has a cult following for stone-ground, nixtamalized corn tortillas made with heirloom corn from small farms in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Puebla in Mexico. At the Marchantes pop-up, listening to Germán talk about the fickle temperament of blue conico azul heirloom corn—the masa reacts differently depending on humidity, temperature, cook time, terroir and other factors—is like listening to Paul Giammati’s character explaining pinot noir in the film Sideways. The tortillas’ taste and texture differ with each corn varietal. As Villarino puts it, “What Ray does is true alchemy.” Once only a fixture at farmers markets, Raiz Tortillas can now also be found at a growing list of Mexican restaurants around Honolulu and at Mercado de la Raza.
Increasing exposure for small, artisan local Latin businesses is only one goal. Chun and Villarino’s vision for the market is to “bring all together, all of Latin-America,” Villarino says, “to find commonalities and to teach each other’s culture and to spread culture that is authentic from the heart.”
Mercado de la Raza is still O‘ahu’s go-to destination for Latin goods. Its broad range of customers matches the range of goods on its shelves. The store caters to expats from Latin countries, mainland transplants looking for Mexican snacks and flavors they grew up with, and local cooks looking for chiles, sauces and other ingredients. Many end up comparing items in their shopping baskets, often discovering shared commonalities from the vibrant snack, drink and candy sections.
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Chun and Villarino like to help the discoveries along. So there are, for example, peanut candies from Argentina (the Mantecol brand), Brazil (Paçoquita) and Mexico (De la Rosa Mazapan). It’s not just a cross-cultural gustatory statement. It turns out that candies from the homeland touch the heart. A customer from Colombia cried when she saw Chocoramos, a familiar snack of chocolate-covered pound cake that’s ubiquitous in that country. At Mercado, you hear similar stories about other customers when they discover hard-to-find items from Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador and the Caribbean.
It’s a big legacy for a 900-square-foot space, especially in the middle of the Pacific. And it’s well worth watching. Mercado de la Raza 2.0 is just getting started.
What: Marchantes Latin@s
When: Saturday, May 27, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Featuring: Conchas, or Mexican sweet breads by locally based Panaderia Santiago
1315 S. Beretania St., (808) 593-2226, @mercadodelaraza