Friday, July 8, 2016

The Portland Mercado: Color, Carts and Community

Take the Foster Road exit off I-205 and head west about a mile down the road. You’ll soon see a rainbow of warm colors and activity that has become Portland’s Hispanic Mercado. It’s a gathering place for good food, shopping and a dose of Latino culture that will leave you smiling the rest of the day.

You’ll find adequate parking, snazzy new food carts representing cuisine from over five south of the border countries, a welcoming beer and wine shop, meat market, grocery store and so much more. It’s an economic development project that has the feel of a trendy Portland neighborhood venture. The Portland Mercado is well organized, attractive and is definitely a place to go for a relaxed afternoon or quick take out meal.

We went on a Monday, thinking there wouldn’t be much activity. Wrong! The carts (half are closed on Monday and half on Tuesday) were doing a booming business cooking up hot lunches for local Hispanic families and Anglo office workers alike. Smiling faces greeted diners from each of the carts as they explained their offerings and efficiently prepared the meals. I chose a Fernando’s Special Burrito and my friend, who writes the blog Locavoregon, was drawn to the Salvadoran fried plantain dish topped with shredded chicken.

Ferndando’s has a variety of burritos and wraps. This one was excellent. I enjoyed the seasoned steak with grilled onions, jalapenos, rice and beans, cheese and sour cream. The picante red sauce made the meal. My friend said her fried plantains tasted like tortillas. She enjoyed the dish with fresh lettuce, shredded chicken and salsa. With drinks, our lunches were less than $10 each.

We then went shopping. Our first stop was the Kaah grocery store. Kaah means community in Mayan. The owners are from Guatemala. You’ll find Hispanic canned and bottled goods and a variety of fresh foods and produce that will surprise you. Tomatillos, mangos, freshly made tortillas, pan dulce and so much more fills this little store. Ask questions and you will learn. I didn’t know much about the fuzzy looking choyotes. But enjoyed hearing about this member of the squash family and how to prepare it. How to prepare and eat choyote.

And I learned about the Micro Mercantes, start-up ventures that use a common kitchen and provide the store, especially on weekends, with salsa, fresh tortillas, carnitas y mas. Stick around and you may hear the story about Pico de Gallo (my favorite salsa fresca). This finely chopped delight, they say at Kaah Grocery, is named after the beak of the rooster (gallo). With a head shaped tortilla chip, you might imagine a rooster peck, peck, pecking into the salsa. There are many other stories out there… some relating to cock fighting and some to using the thumb and forefinger to eat with the tortilla.

As we got ready to leave we noticed a baker bringing a fresh supply of colorful Pan Dulce for the store’s pastry case. Purchases in hand, we walked through the rest of the building. There were clean public restrooms, a shop with piñatas and colorful Mexican candies and snacks (how about a Mexican theme for your child’s next birthday party?), a fruit drink shop and a wall with photos showing the small businesses that were part of Micro Mercantes. We vowed to return for more shopping, especially on a Saturday morning. And it would be fun to try out Happy Hour at El Barrio and to sample more of the food cart offerings.

We’ll watch The Portland Mercado Facebook page for special events. The Portland Mercado is a fun place to go to have a meal, get ideas and ingredients for cooking at home and to spend a little time immersed in the color and warmth of a culture many of us only can enjoy on a vacation south of the border. Who would have thought that there was such a vibrant, lovely place just off the Interstate on Foster Road?

More Information
The Portland Mercado
7238 SE Foster Road, Portland, Oregon