Ruckersville Mexi-Mart offers authentic Mexican food to eat in, take out, or cook at home

By Susan Gibbs

More and more people are discovering the joys of traditional Mexican cooking, from melted-cheesy to light and limy.

Gerardo Arizmendi sells authentic Mexican food at his Mexi-Mart in Ruckersville

Real Mexican food – not the Tex-Mex variety found in most “Mexican” restaurants – is zesty but not fussy, brimming with corn, fresh herbs, lean meats and light cheeses.

Authentic Mexican food is nutritious and ideal for those looking for a healthy diet, and it can be had right here in Greene County, at the Mexi-Mart at 8390 Seminole Trail.

“All of our food is fresh, and cooked to order,” says owner Gerardo Arizmendi. “That includes tacos, tortas, enchiladas, and pupusas.  We also make our own guacamole, and our own hot sauce.”

But authentic Latin American food cooked fresh is not all that’s available at Mexi-Mart. It’s filled to its brim with the stuff that authentic Mexican dinners or fantastic fiestas put together at home are made of.

Allow me to explain.

According to Food, one of several Web sites that provides ideas to chefs about food trends, “until fairly recently, the American perspective on Mexican cuisine tended to begin and end with Tex-Mex dishes like tacos, nachos, burritos and tortillas.”

There are, however, a lot of differences between authentic Mexican cuisine and “Tex-Mex” – a term combining “Texan” and “Mexican” used to describe a regional American version of Mexican cuisine, or, American Southwestern cuisine.

Some Tex-Mex ingredients are common in Mexican cuisine, but other ingredients not typically used in Mexico are often added. Tex-Mex is characterized by its heavy use of melted cheese, meat (particularly beef and pork), beans, and spices, in addition to Mexican-style tortillas. Dishes such as Texas-style chili con carne, chili con queso, nachos, and fajitas are all Tex-Mex inventions. Moreover, Tex-Mex has imported flavors from other spicy cuisines, such as the use of cumin, which is common in Indian cuisine, but used in only a few central Mexican recipes.

Ingredients used in authentic Mexican dishes include chili peppers, green peppers, chilies, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, tomatoes, corn and radishes. Avocado, guava, papaya, jicama, squash, sweet potato, pineapple, chocolate and vanilla are also used,

In addition, consider these differences:

The Tex-Mex tamale has a thin outer corn meal covering in contrast to the traditional Mexican softer thicker corn meal covering.

The typical Tex-Mex crispy, folded corn tortillas shells used for tacos are hard to find in Mexico, where tacos are made by gently frying a tortilla, and, the ground beef filling common to Tex-Mex is not the filling used in most parts of Mexico, which use a shredded beef or chicken.

Another difference is the quesadilla, which is simply a warmed tortilla with melted white cheese inside.

Esmerelda cooks all food fresh at Mexi-Mart in Ruckersville

Many of those who favor authentic Mexican cuisine choose to top their quesadillas with pico de gallo, fresh salsa, or even a bit of guacamole, but that’s it. Mexican quesadillas contain no beef or chicken, and they are not served with lettuce, tomato or sour cream on top.

Authentic Mexican dishes rely on leaner meats, less cheese, sauces crafted from fresh vegetables instead of creams and gravies and above all, smaller portions.

Arizmendi, who was born and raised in Mexico City, and then moved to the Los Angeles area of California when he was 16 years old, is well aware of these differences.

“I order a lot of things directly from Mexico and South America myself, not through a distributor,” he says.

Those “things” include avocado leaves, which can be used fresh, dried or ground; banana leaves, used as a wrap for tamales and steamed dishes; an large assortment of chilies; Mexican chocolate, a grainy blend of cacao, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and ground almond, for making sauces or hot chocolate; hoja santa, an anise-flavored leaf that can be used either as a tamale-style wrap or as an herb; and more.

Arizmendi also stocks fresh cheeses and aged cheeses that are used in traditional Mexican dishes – as opposed to the cheddar and Monterey Jack that are standard Tex-Mex fare. He carries anejo (cotija), a dry, crumbly cheese similar to feta; Chihuahua, a mild cheese similar to Monterey Jack or mild cheddar; asadero, a good melting cheese, similar to mozzarella; and queso blanco, a slightly textured white fresh cheese similar to farmer’s cheese.

And, of course he stocks other hard-to-find ingredients, such as annatto seed, which imparts a rich yellow flavor and earthy, distinctive flavor to grains, sauces and other dishes, and azafran – or Mexican saffron – and epazote, to flavor bean dishes, soups and stews.

Even the drinks Arizmendi sells are the real thing: while he stocks Coke and Pepsi products, he also keeps South American drinks from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Columbia on hand. “We have grape and apple drinks, but also pineapple, banana and other fruit drinks, as well as a non-alcoholic Sangria, which is very popular,” he says.

Not to be forgotten, dessert is available in the form of pastries delivered fresh twice a week from a Mexican bakery in Harrisonburg.

While the store is certainly a draw for the local Latin-American population, it is also a draw for those who are developing a taste for authentic cuisine, either to eat at Mexi-Mart, to take out, or to cook at home.

Arizmendi says it is easy to cook authentic Mexican food, and he is happy to offer advice to those who stop by for supplies.

Mexican food is as much about simplicity as flavor, and those who wish to prepare authentic dishes at home might be surprised to learn that some of the tastiest recipes only contain a few ingredients.

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