Bopping around the bodega 

Carniceria Guanajuato II restores primal joy of groceries

From the moment I step out of my car in front of the glowing yellow Carniceria Guanajuato on Shadeland Avenue, I know this is no ordinary grocery store. With its red tile roof and obviously handmade sale signs, this is no big box megamart that will track my purchases or sell me a lifestyle with its coffee bar or sushi station. Inside, I’m greeted by old school aisles of boxes and bottles, a study in symmetry, and pyramids of Technicolor cans. I want to pull one off the bottom. Soccer jerseys from just about every country in the Western hemisphere dangle from the ceiling like flags. To my right, my eye catches a hallway through which an entire truck of piñatas is being unloaded: big shiny stars with tassels bursting from every point. Ah, the grocery store!

Whatever happened to the joys of food shopping? Why are all but the grocery behemoths or bargain promisers struggling these days, reduced to circus tactics to get shoppers back? With our own homegrown chain Marsh finally off the auction block, our future in “local” grocery stores with people whose names you actually know is dubious at best. Where are those corner markets of yore with their bag boys in bowties and neighbors gossiping by the freezers?

I’m convinced my love of food was kindled in the well-stocked aisles of Hartrich’s Grocery in southern Illinois, where the butchers whistled to show how much they loved their jobs and we took home our ham salad and beef liver in cheery red-and-white checkered cardboard boats. Back then, we didn’t need gimmicks to lure us in. The checkout lady always gave me a cherry sucker, and when times were tough, we just asked them to “put it on our bill.” Why did we cede those feelings of comfort and certainty in feeding our families to the impersonal, unforgiving hand of corporate stores?

Thankfully, our growing immigrant population is restoring that comfort in markets, selling everything from Russian to Indian to regional Latin American foodstuffs. Particularly in the over 60 Mexican grocery stores in Indianapolis, old-fashioned commerce still transpires. Indeed, a recent New York Times article suggests that consumers from Latin America typically buy around 40 percent more groceries than the average U.S.-born grocery shopper. If you need proof of that, just stop in at Guanajuato on a Saturday around noon and watch the glut of shopping carts corralled at the butcher counter as customers wait for bags of shrimp, wedges of cotija cheese and some of the best looking chicken parts you’ll find (no boneless breasts here!) packed in ice.

Produce is equally impressive. Everything, from chayote squash to prickly pears to sprigs of cilantro, is stunningly green. Even such mundane staples as potatoes and apples are pristine, with hardly a blemished specimen in the bunch. On one visit, I noticed gloved stockers rubbing the dirty outer skins off of onions. Limes are 15 for $1. Avocado is cheaper than just about anywhere in town.

It seems somehow fitting that Guanajuato is a city in central Mexico that was given its name, which means “place of frogs,” before rich veins of silver turned it into one of the country’s most beautiful cultural centers.

Opened only since June 2, the Shadeland location is the second of two Guanajuato stores in town, the other on Oliver Street, on the near Westside. To have both options in one city is definitely a silver rush for grocery enthusiasts.

Like many of the Mexican markets around the city, Guanajuato will do the cooking for you in a surprisingly spacious, colorful taqueria. This is no neglected corner with cases of fried pig skins or greasy carnitas. Big plastic dispensers circulate agua frescas, tasty fruit drinks in flavors such as pineapple and melon. While signs do indicate some of the things you can order here, including special dishes like menudo (tripe soup) made only on weekends, the sole menu is right on the corner where you order. So, when the lines are long, you have to make a split decision. Thankfully, the menu is short, so choices are somewhat limited. You’ll wonder just exactly how your order makes its way around the corner to the grill, but it does. Even without much English being spoken, the cooks will find you with your food.

Tortas, oversized sandwiches on thick-cut rolls, are some of the best you’ll get, piled high with tasty meats like grilled strips of pork tenderloin or carne asada and topped with tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, luscious Mexican sour cream and a generous helping of fresh avocado. At $3.50, they’re a steal. Well-stuffed tacos are also tasty, especially barbacoa, slow-roasted lamb, and chorizo, a complex, well-spiced sausage. I did pour a good stream of bright orange grease off the chorizo, but it was delicious, served with just a few onions, radishes and a shower of cilantro. Just beware of the salsa verde at the table — a little lit this gringo’s tongue afire. But that was nothing compared to how my spirit was warmed to know that grocery stores — the old, homey kind — were still very much alive.

Carniceria Guanajuato II
3110 N. Shadeland Ave.

Monday-Saturday: 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
(Taqueria closes 30 minutes before closing)

Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Three stars

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Terry Kirts

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