But step outside and you're in a whole different world.
Food is the poetry between people who don't have a language in common. And at Fiesta Plaza, the verses begin before I can even get out of the car. Mariachi music blares from nowhere in particular -- from the sky, as if that's the music that God likes. There are signs hung on scrap-metal frames: whole tilapia for 79 cents a pound, screaming in bright colors, in Spanish and English, in pictograms -- a smiling fish curled lovingly around its own price. Announcements echo from the thin, hot air, offering Mexican cilantro, Coca-Cola and limes for pennies. On the sidewalk, in the parking lot, men with skin like cheap wallets sell churros and elotes and white Styrofoam cups of something that smells so good I can almost get past how evil it looks.
Near the front door of Avanza Supermarket, there are avocados in a bin for 49 cents each, and beyond that so many piñatas that I can't count them all. A hundred? A thousand? The roof of my world is made of shredded crepe, its gold-foil stars sparkling like constellations with no names.
At the butcher's counter, even the meat is foreign. Bottles of pickled pigs' ears in brine. Trotters and chiles. Whole wheels of asadero and ropy twists of queso fresco are stacked higgledy-piggledy beside bowls of fajita meat, links of sausage I've never seen on any menu, mountains of tip steak sliced thin onto white paper, cow's stomach cut for menudo, chuletas de puerco trimmed more roundly than any Anglo butcher's diagram has ever shown them, and chicken feet -- mounds of chicken feet -- destined for Christ knows what.
Two aisles over, or three, the orderly cans of beans are watched over by a hundred dead Mexican saints: prayer candles in such lovely variety as to burn away innumerable sins. On another aisle, I am torn between buying the candy spaghetti flavored with hot watermelon and salsa or the package of chocolate-marshmallow cookies with the picture of a cartoon Jesus cavorting with a bear. At the front of the store, you can get car loans, cell phones, phone cards and wire service, and at another counter you can pay your utility bills. Were I an immigrant to this place -- to Denver, to Los Estados, legal or non -- I can't imagine what a comfort this would represent. Like me packing up and moving to Ghana, to Tibet or Tokyo and finding a place that sells doughnuts, coffee, Marlboros and Irish whiskey for American dollars.
I step back outside, no closer to home, and walk past the thrift store, headed for another land. But Hong Kong Market is closed. By the look of the place, it has been for a while. All it's selling now is broken shelving and dust.
From behind me, someone says, "They're closed."
"Yeah," I say. "I get that. Do you know how long?"
Across the street, someone else is selling Hatch green chiles and piñon at a rattletrap stand. A couple of blocks away, I walk into a Vietnamese video store and recognize absolutely nothing; it's like stepping through a mirror and finding myself in a parallel universe where Hollywood never existed -- until, on my way out, I see a battered copy of what looks like Turner and Hooch.
After failing to find anything but ghosts at Hong Kong, I head to New Saigon Market, at 1076 South Federal, where I can get my ginger bonbons and fish sauce and green tea with honey. Surrounded by families looking for jackfruit and stew meat and durian and Chiclets, I sort through cans and bottles of pickled vegetables like Vietnamese escabeche. Next door, there are French sandwiches on heavy bread at Ba Le Sandwich. Past that, duck's blood, shaved banana flowers and fishscale mint at Ha Noi Pho.
It's International Street, and if there's something that can't be found here, I haven't found it. -- Jason Sheehan
No one cruises Federal on Thursday night. The boulevard is dead, without a lowrider in sight. Instead, everyone is in the clubs -- at Oasis up the street, or Saturday Night Live if they're single or can get away from the wives. But Sundays...Sundays are always slammin'. That's when the strip is packed with beautiful cars lovingly restored and improved with hydraulics and custom paint and upholstery. Sundays are a rolling art exhibit, although "not as much as it used to be," says Bo Valdez-Berriel, shortly after picking me up at the corner of 38th Avenue and Federal in his gorgeous 1983 Buick Regal.