A secret really isn't much of a secret if it's plastered on signs all over town, but sometimes the message gets lost among the many distractions of urban strip malls advertising everything from foot massages to children's dental clinics. But if you look closely and pay attention, the word "taqueria" shows up on more than just standard taco joints. Many of the city's Mexican grocery stores and butcher shops also have counter-service eateries with a few tables where you can sit down and enjoy a quick meal before grabbing your dried chiles, marinated flank steak and specialty produce. Here are three that serve up some pretty good comida.
1) Carneceria la Sierra
3170 West Alameda Avenue
8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
A mural of a cow glancing hungrily at its own hind quarters being carved into steaks isn't going to win over any PETA members, but on Alameda Avenue just west of Federal Boulevard, it signifies good butchering going on inside Carniceria la Sierra, a jam-packed little meat market that also sports a small selection of produce and dry goods. Keep walking past the aisles of salsas and tortillas, though; in the back is a bustling lunch counter with steam pans full of slow-cooked meats, soups and beans available in a variety of combo plates or for bulk take-out. Twenty dollars will get you two pounds of carnitas or barbacoa with all the trimmings plus a fat stack of tortillas. You can also sit down for tacos, a quick torta or a couple of tamales.
On the assumption that a butcher shop would be a good place for fresh pork rind, I ordered a plate of chicharron, which came braised and smothered in a salsa verde (ranchero sauce was also an option) that was nothing like Colorado green chile. The strips of pork skin were so tender they could have been mistaken for wide-cut noodles if not for the rich, meaty flavor. While $10 isn't the best bargain in town for Mexican fare, it was enough food for two, especially with a foil pack of five tortillas to help scoop up the sauce and beans.
2) Super Carniceria Compare
2796 South Federal Boulevard
8 a.m to 9 p.m. daily (except 8 p.m. Sundays)
Driving a couple of miles south on Federal Boulevard takes you away from the snarl of traffic farther north into the neighborhood surrounding Loretto Heights. The word "taqueria" is a little harder to pick out on the sign above Super Carniceria Compare, and the shopping center itself is a run-down, faded strip that seems to almost actively repel customers. But the constant stream of cars heading into the parking lot means the grocery store stays busy, turning over inventory quickly to keep meats and produce fresh. The restaurant seating is wedged between the butcher counter and stacks of fresh fruit, with seasonal offerings that shift from unusual citrus to gleaming persimmons to fragrant, ripe quince from week to week — not to mention bundles of hard-to-find fresh herbs like epazote, pipicha, huauzontle and chepil.
Like La Sierra, Compare offers family packs to-go and a number of combo plates, but you'll also find a few antojitos like enormous sopes and Salvadoran pupusas stuffed with pork, beans and cheese. When I gave my order, the cook behind the counter made a quick dash to the tortilla aisle for a fresh bag of pre-made sopes (the same brand of thick corn-masa shells found at many larger grocery stores), which she then deep-fried and topped with lard-heavy frijoles, succulent carnitas and thick slices of cotija cheese.
Three pupusas and three sopes came to just over $15, and each was a lunchtime feast with plenty left over for an evening snack. While the sopes weren't made fresh in the kitchen, the carnitas and beans held enough slow-cooked goodness to overcome the slightly chewy texture of the pre-formed masa.
3) Ana's Meat Market
1411 South Federal Boulevard
7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Ana's, tucked behind Pho 95 on Federal, falls somewhere in between La Sierra and Compare in terms of quality and selection. La Sierra scores high for its meat counter, but the rest of the market is a little slim. Compare offers the best all-around shopping experience, especially when it comes to produce. But Ana's is a good stop for fresh chiles, onions, limes and other necessities of Mexican cooking, and you'll occasionally find other seasonal treats. I've purchased longaniza — a heavily spiced sausage similar to chorizo — at Ana's; it's an uncommon find but not an exceptional example of the style. Still, the other meats and cheeses are worth a stop, and you'll also find real granite molcajetes for sale — not the cheap lava-rock variety meant only for decorative purposes.
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The order counter is at the front of the store, but the menu is off to the left in a narrow passageway. An order of four carnitas tacos will only set you back about six bucks and change, and they come with whole roasted white onions and jalapenos. It's a good option for lunch away from the standard South Federal taquerias and you can pick up a few groceries while you're there. And unlike at either Compare or La Sierra, the clerk at Ana's order counter gives you a ticket for your food so that you can pay at the grocery check-out line instead of having to pay for your lunch separately from your grocery purchases.
In my year and a half of eating in every restaurant on Federal Boulevard, my quest was so centered on restaurants that I overlooked a few of these lunch counters tucked inside Mexican grocery stores. But look for signs bearing the words "carneceria," abarrotes," "fruitas and "verduras" — and then look again to see if "taqueria" is also there. These three are only a handful of the many grocery/eatery combos scattered along Sheridan Boulevard, Alameda, Colfax and points north. Stop in at a few to find one with just the right balance of your favorite Mexican dishes and cooking needs for home.