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June 22, 2006

HEADING: talk of the table, Rita's Mexican Market by Luke T. Johnson, photo of Ededino Valladares by Luke T. Johnson

Banda music blares through an open door onto the sidewalk. Piñatas dangle in the front window. Jumex juices are packed in the fridge. A Frida Kahlo tapestry hangs on the wall. Rows of Jesus candles line top shelves amid wafts of fresh Mexican spices.

A jaunt down J Street behind the Arcata Co-op might leave unsuspecting pedestrians wondering how they stumbled into a little Mexican market straight off the streets of Guadalajara. While Rita's Mexican Market and Deli has the feel of an authentic Mexican food shop, its roots run deep in Humboldt County.

Rita Pimentel, the matriarch of the Eureka-based Mexican restaurants that bear her name, has been satisfying Humboldt's munchies since 1988 with old recipes handed down through generations in her family. The restaurants are always busy, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't grabbed one of her microwave burritos or a tub of her fresh salsa out of Wildberries or Co-op coolers. But now Rita and her family have expanded their operation into Arcata, this time as a retail store.

Rita's son and business manager, Roberto Lopez, said the store has received a "wonderful reception from a diverse clientele" since it opened about a month ago. Like the food served at the restaurant, the market's homemade products are preservative-free. "We want to apply that freshness philosophy into the market," he said.

Roberto said they want to capture two demographics with their new market: Hispanic people looking to remain loyal to products from their homeland and "American" (that is, non-Hispanic) people looking for an authentic taste of Mexico. Based on the time I spent in the shop one morning, those are exactly the sorts of people who patronize the market.

The first two patrons to visit the shop that day were a pair of Hispanic men, one older, one younger, possibly brothers. They chatted for a while in Spanish with a friendly clerk and left with a handful of Aldama Olbeas con Cajetas (milky candies sandwiched between two powdery wafers) and some El Mexicano yogurts. Soon afterwards a white American man walked in looking for some tamales, but the day's shipment had yet to arrive. Disappointed, he settled for a can of Jumex juice and went on his way.

"Tamales sell the best. They're homemade and fresh," said Enedino Valladares, a clerk who works at the store occasionally. He said they go through about 20 dozen tamales a week. Very soon after the departure of the disappointed tamale patron, the shipment arrived. Soon the warming oven was packed with over 30 fresh tamales.

"These will probably be gone by lunch," Enedino said. If these were, in fact, one of the biggest sellers at Rita's Market, I felt it was my duty as the food critic-at-large to have a taste for myself. Maybe I haven't been exposed to the best tamales, but rarely have they been at the top of my list of favorite Mexican cuisine. I usually find them dry and without flavor. Unabashed by my prejudice, I unwrapped the corn husk cover and dug in.

I must say, Rita makes a fine tamale. The masa dough (the corny stuff) was moist and bursting with savory Mexican spices. The strip of Monterey Jack cheese running up the middle gave the tamale a greasy slickness that made it go down easy (but then, I'm a sucker for good cheese). For fear of slipping into hyperbole, I'll just say that since I actually ate the whole thing and didn't get bored with the flavor (or lack thereof) half-way through, it was one of the better tamales I've eaten.

Though Rita's tamales sell like the proverbial hot cakes, it is not the Hispanic population driving up the demand. Enedino told me that most Hispanic people make their own tamales anyway, so they tend to stay away from them in the store. On a similar note, very few Hispanic people buy the fresh homemade tortillas sold at Rita's, even though it is the only place in the county one can find homemade tortillas, according to Roberto. Rita's sells all the necessary ingredients and utensils to make tortillas at home, so most Hispanics choose to make their own rather than pay extra money at the market. They do come in to buy corn tortillas in bulk because, as Enedino said, "Mexicans eat tortillas like Asians eat rice." He said he alone eats about 20 tortillas a day.

The other most popular items in the store, Enedino said, are the cheap treats in the corner freezer. Packed with bolis (ice cream sticks) and paletas (Popsicles), the freezer's contents have become especially popular as summer arrives. There are an interesting array of bolis flavors: mango, bubble gum and eggnog, to name a few.

The biggest shocker of my on-the-go lunch was the pepino con chile paleta — that's right, a cucumber with chili Popsicle. There are all sorts of exotic flavors at Rita's, like coconut, walnut, tamarind and mango con chile, but Enedino insisted I try his favorite (and judging by how he had to dig for it, one of the local favorites as well). Now, I've never had a cucumber Popsicle, especially one loaded with chili powder, so this was a new experience for me. It was unusual, but not unpleasant. It was speckled with chewy chunks of cucumber, which were surprisingly refreshing. But I've never had anything so cold leave me so sweaty. It was not overly spicy, but unlike my Mexican neighbors, my taste buds were not weaned on chili powder, so it was a bit of a shock to my system. I think I'll stick to the eggnog pops.

Roberto admits that Rita's Market and Deli is a work in progress, but he wants to know what people want to see and eagerly accepts suggestions. They will also special order any product. He wants to expand into some organic and gluten-free products because "they're popular in Arcata." Though you can still buy heat-and-eat burritos at Rita's next-door competitor, the Co-op, Rita's sells two for the price of one, and there are some flavors such as adobada and carne asada that you won't find across the street. You can also buy a variety of other "TV-dinner" style enchiladas that aren't available anywhere else, as well as fresh mole and enchilada sauce.

Rita's Market and Deli gives Arcata an outlet for Mexican culture you won't find at any of the burrito wagons scattered across town. They sell not only food, but CDs, tortilla boxes... even Mexican cleaning products. Stop on by and have a taste. Just tread lightly with the chili powder Popsicles.


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