June 2, 2007


Turistas in Pasadena (LISA GRAY, 5/31/07, Houston Chronicle

For my money, Mi Tienda is the most interesting grocery store in the United States right now. The name — Spanish for "my store" — tells you much about H-E-B's bright new prototype, which offers natives of Mexico and Central America the foods they miss: papayas and pupusas, crumbly white cheeses and fresh-baked pan dulce. The Pasadena store, which opened in October, has proved a wild success, so crowded on Sundays that management is trying to expand its parking lot. As H-E-B refines its formula, the stores are likely to proliferate other places where recent immigrants settle.

Part of the approach is obvious: At Mi Tienda, Spanish isn't just tolerated. It rules. Some employees are bilingual; some aren't. A few signs en español are translated into English in small type. The announcements over the loudspeaker aren't translated at all.

For mass-market products, labels are the same as you'd see in a regular Texas grocery store — Tide remains Tide, Blue Bell is Blue Bell — but the effect is eerie. You feel as though you're buying U.S. imports in a Spanish-speaking country.

Mi Tienda accepts payment in pesos? Well, of course.

You want to order an entire goat? No problem.

A money order to Mexico? Sí, es facíl.

All that would be remarkable enough in a chain grocery store, but Mi Tienda goes further. The heart of the store is its indoor puebla, a simulated Mexican village where you can order a host of foods to be eaten in the store: ceviche and roasted chickens, aguas frescas and cups of fresh-cut tropical fruit.

Such Disney-esque recreations usually give me the heebie-jeebies, but this faux town, with its highly professional lighting and graphic design, somehow fosters actual human interaction. People hang out here, and the people-watching is rich. On Sundays, mariachis wander the crowded tables, serenading entire families dressed in church clothes. Intent-looking store employees de-spine cactus pads and chop them into tame little ribbons. A blonde-streaked woman barks into a sparkly pink phone. A man in a cowboy hat says something to a boy in baggy jeans.

The Texas grocery store feels surprisingly like an actual Mexican town square: a place where everyone gathers, and not just to shop. This spring, a priest presided over a 7 a.m. Lent service in the food court. The event drew roughly 300 people.

Scott McClelland, the president of H-E-B's Houston operations, explains that the chain's intent was to offer first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants something targeted specifically to them — to their language, their culture, and their incomes — that was nonetheless as highly polished as H-E-B's most upscale stores. Mi Tienda, McClelland says, was supposed to offer "the Central Market experience in a sombrero."

Actually, I like Mi Tienda better, and not just because my week's groceries cost about a third less than usual at the Central Market near the Galleria. At peak hours Central Market has a manic edge; you can't imagine anyone bringing the whole family to hang out, much less to attend a 7 a.m. religious service. Even when the band playing on the patio is good, the people eating there seem in more of a hurry to leave.

But people linger at Mi Tienda. Maybe that's because Pasadena's blue-collar immigrants don't have nearly as many choices as well-heeled denizens of the Galleria. But it's also because Mi Tienda is really good at what it does.

It's amusing how many of the folks who oppose iummigration also bemoan the loss of exactly the sort of community the immigrants form.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2007 7:14 AM

P.J. O'Rourke made a comment about the Mexico exhibit at Epcot that seems appropriate here.

"Seeing a Mexican market that is quiet, clean and expensive is as alarming in it's own way as seeing a pyramid of human skulls in downtown Kansas City"

Posted by: Brandon at June 2, 2007 9:51 AM

So, when's Greek Town going to accept the Euro or drachmas?

Posted by: Sandy P at June 2, 2007 10:07 AM

I hope they build one up in Fort Worth, it sounds divine. Central Market is awesome, but expensive. I would love to buy the fruits and peppers and Mexican ingredients at a cheaper price. The culture that brought me breakfast tacos is welcome anytime.

Posted by: Stormy70 at June 2, 2007 12:31 PM
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