Mexican markets in Sacramento: supermercado sweep

Does every Mexican market sell something special?

Greg Lucas is on vacation and will return next week.

Unlike prepared food at the local Safeway—desiccated sandwiches, California rolls with “krab” meat, DayGlo-yellow potato salad—the city’s Mexican markets have tacos that rival those at the best taco trucks. And sometimes, they’re even cheaper and bigger.

Fresh epazote, cactus paddles, garbanzos in the pod, an array of dried chilies—La Superior (4940 Stockton Boulevard) lives up to its name when it comes to selection. And unlike most mercados, there’s seating inside and an area dedicated to prepared foods only. Unfortunately, “dedicated” doesn’t really describe the staff; more like “annoyed.” One employee rotated a dripping, gyrolike cone of meat, thrusting her bare hands into the gloppy sauce and layers of what they said was pork. Not a very appetizing sight.

The tacos were $1.50. The al pastor had a sweet barbecuelike sauce with no heat. The chicken was unexpectedly white meat, dry and flavorless. In another surprise move, the chile verde contained pork skin rather than pork meat and tasted like pork rinds soaked in water. The rather gray fish ceviche at the deli passed the smell test, but was so thoroughly “cooked” by its long marinade in lime juice that it tasted more like tuna salad than fresh, tender ceviche.

Outside Mercado Loco (3710 Franklin Boulevard) is a colorful but weird mural: Its perspective makes the harmonious market scene appear to be populated by gnomes. Mercado Loco is almost as large as La Superior, but the selection of produce is not nearly as good.

The prepared-food menu hangs behind the meat counter; tacos were a dollar. A very friendly guy hustled to prepare an order of chicken, carnitas and asada tacos. The shredded chicken was mixed with a moist and smoky tomato marinade. The carnitas were soft, complete with a gaggy mouthful of fat. The asada was good quality meat, not too salty, and after a squeeze of lime, became awesome.

Similarly awesome was the deli-case meat at Carniceria Lopez No. 2 (6201 Franklin Boulevard). The meat was fresh and lovely, and I snapped up some pretty pink shrimp ceviche right away.

Lopez No. 2 is a restaurant, too; enter through the store. The food’s presentation was good and comes with chips and salsa, and the tacos were large. The birria was surprisingly dry and tasted like Grandma’s pot roast. All the meat looked uniformly chopped and high quality with little fat or gristle, but the adobada (pork marinated in chili sauce) was bland and lacked salt, and the asada wasn’t very beefy. Is it possible for meat to be too high quality?

At La Esperanza Mexican Food Products (5028 Franklin Boulevard), everyone buys carnitas by the pound and quarts of red salsa—and there are often long lines. The display case is piled to the top with hot pork products soaking in pools of grease. The menu says that tacos are a buck; the receipt said $1.25. Perhaps it was a surcharge for the shredded iceberg and sad orange tomatoes?

Anyway, the carnitas had the desired crispy-meets-soft and unctuous texture worth lining up for, but someone ran amok with the salt shaker, rendering them almost inedible—which probably was a fluke. The asada was nicely chewy and had a big beef flavor. Esperanza’s tamales are tasty: the masa firm yet moist, the shredded pork or chicken immersed in a thick, pasty chili sauce with a complex, molelike flavor. Buy a bunch ($1.25 each) and heat them up; they keep well.

Mercado Loco had the best tacos. The tamales will keep me coming back to La Esperanza. La Superior is essential for certain hard-to-find ingredients, and Carniceria Lopez No. 2 has the highest-quality butchered meat.