The tortita: slightly fishy taste, but hey, it is shrimp, and at under $4, who’s complaining?
The tilapia looks up at me mournfully. He has been battered and fried, but, oh man, he still looks disturbingly like his former self. On the other hand, at $3.99, who am I to refuse him?
I look around, and I’m astonished. In place of some eateries’ basic cut-down take-out menus, Northgate Market is just careening along with what looks like all the good food it always sticks out into its chafing dishes.
I was waiting for a bus to take me here when my Scottish friend Annie tootled up in her car. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said. “Hop in.”
Comforting to see they have strict six-foot distance policing at the entrance. The guy does it all by sign language.
Ancient special: capirotada tradicional for last week’s Lent.
Plus, they only let a certain number in, for that separation thing. You see carts coming out bulging with a month’s worth of siege supplies.
“I need cans of tomatoes and Kleenex,” says Annie. “See you.”
So I head to the left to where the food section is, right next to Cocina Doña Tina, the cafe part of this Northgate. You’d normally get your food in here and take it out to chow down with a beer on Doña Tina’s patio. Sigh.
But still, in here, it’s riches. Okay, not every chafing dish is full, like normal, but there is still plenty to go around.
For starters, they have signs up. “Cuaresma! En Northgate Market.”
I ask the guy, Bryan, what cuaresma is. “Lent,” he says. Oh yeah. This is on the Tuesday before Easter. Turns out cuaresma refers to the forty (cuarenta) days leading up to Easter, whereas the English word “Lent” is all about the lengthening days of spring.
Giving you the eye: whole fried tilapia
Whatever, they certainly have take-out food deals going. Sixteen ounce shrimp cocktail is going for $7.99, lentils are $3.99 lb, chile rellenos are $2.99 each, breaded fish fillets are $7.99 lb, and hey, mojarra, whole fried tilapia, are $3.99 each. So we’re looking at real bargains here.
But me, I’m looking for certain kinds of take-out, because honestly, by the time you get some things home, they look like a listing pile of sludge.
Happily, I find some promising options. You follow the curve of the counter, and you come to chafing dish meals like hey, beef barbacoa ($8.99 lb), which is chunks and shreds of beef in a red-rich sauce. Looks too wicked for words. And even more wicked are the giant chicharrones con carne, thick pork rinds, curling skin plus fat plus a layer of meat ($11.99 lb.) I’m thinking that would get you quite a few rinds.
On the other side are those poor tilapia, following you with their eyes wherever you wander.
Suited up: Bryan says not so many come for takeout these days
Yes, there are the more challenging dishes, such as beef guts (tripitas, $9.99 lb), pork rinds in green sauce ($7.99) or — what’s this? Capirotada tradicional? My attention wanders to the easy ones, things like bistec ranchero, $7.99, or caldo de rez (beef stew, $9.99).
I end up ordering the beef barbacoa ($5.30), one tortita de camaron ($3.76), some Mexican rice ($1.32), and some sweet fried plantains for dessert (1.50). I mean, is this a deal, or what? And okay, for tomorrow, I get a whole tilapia. Because, at $3.99, why wouldn’t you?
Besides, I know that as soon as I get into Scottish Annie’s car and she gets a whiff of it, she’s going to say, “Och! It’s braw. Gimme some.”
“Do people crowd in for take-out?” I ask Bryan.
“No! Nobody’s buying to-go any more,” he says. “Everyone comes to the store to get ingredients for meals they can cook at home. It’s cheaper. We have had to put staff on vacation in this section.”
I also get one of their olla drinks (pineapple, spinach, and lime mix, $2.59, dee-lish, and reee-freshing!). I’m just about to join a line (and every checkout has a long one) when I spot the bright colors of that capirotada again. I have to go ask what the heck it is.
Turns out this is one ancient special food for Lent. Bread pudding with lots of fruit and nuts on top. It’s basically toasted bolillo (“the Mexican baguette”) soaked in mulled piloncillo (solid raw cane sugar) with cloves and cinnamon sticks, plus nuts, seeds, and dried fruit such as apples, dates, and raisins. Pecans, almonds, pine nuts, and walnuts are scattered around the top.
Here’s the thing that gets to me: This capirotada (friar’s hat) has been made every year, unchanged, in Mexico, since at least the year 1640. It’s all about Easter and the Passion of Christ. If you can believe it, the Holy Office of the Inquisition recorded the capirotada’s many ingredients back then, and keeps them in its archives to this day. Many in Mexico see this food as a reminder of Christ’s suffering. The bread is the body of Christ, the syrup is the blood, the cloves are the nails, the cinnamon sticks are the wood of the cross, and the melted cheese is the shroud.
A beautiful thing about living on the border. We share these traditions. I get a half-pound ($2.50).
“That’s a bonny cake, but why did you get it?” says Annie.
“Och, it’s a long story, lass,” I say.
And the take-out? The beef barbacoa has to be #1. It’s rich, chunky, and so good with the flavor-filled rice. But the tilapia comes a close second. Its flesh is tender and savory without being salty. Shrimp torta? A little fishy for my tastes. But this place is a jewel: if you’re hard up and hungry, count on these guys.
- The Place: Northgate Gonzalez Market, 1950 Main Street, 619-237-8022, and seven other locations in San Diego County
- Hours (take-out only): 8am-8pm, daily
- Prices: 16oz shrimp cocktail, $7.99; lentils $3.99 lb; chile relleno, $2.99; breaded fish fillets, $7.99 lb; fried tilapia, $3.99; beef barbacoa, $8.99 lb; chicharrones con carne, $11.99 lb; tripitas, $9.99 lb; bistec ranchero, $7.99; beef stew, $9.99; tortita de camaron (shrimp), $3.76; fried plantain, $1.50
- Buses: 12, 901, 929
- Nearest Bus Stops: Main and Cesar Chavez, (929); National and Cesar Chavez (901); Logan and Cesar Chavez (12)
- Trolley: Blue Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: Barrio Logan, Cesar Chavez at Harbor Drive