The supermarket itself, four tight grocery aisles, a butcher and a bakery, is a treasure trove of Latin American and Caribbean products. You push miniature shopping carts with unruly wheels first through the produce section, a reliable source for ripe avocados, yuca and plantains; then past reams of tortillas, white cheeses, fresh lard and canned beans. Folks exploring Mexico through their Rick Bayless cookbooks will find every possible dried chile, packets of whole allspice, housemade chorizo and forearm-length beef tongues. There's a different brand of fried pork skins at every turn.
This season the bakery is hidden by a barricade of gift boxes filled with Spanish nougats. Neither this obstruction nor the minor lunchtime mob scene is reason to bypass it. Besides being an outlet for sweets -- amber candied papaya, tres leches cake frosted with meringue, wheaty guava-filled pastries -- the bakery is a lunch counter behind which women native to Nicaragua, Honduras and Ecuador produce a bounty of savory dishes.
Tacos, burritos and enchiladas are the most prominent ones. Made with flour tortillas and sweetly seasoned ground beef, they're also the weakest reasons for eating here. They will, however, introduce you to the devilish, plum-colored refried pinto beans larded with chorizo. A side order will do.
Plan visits around the daily specials instead. On Saturdays, order Nicaragua's national salad, vigoron -- timbers of boiled yuca layered with shingles of fried pig skin, then topped with a lightly marinated cabbage slaw. The pig skins (chicharrones in Spanish, cracklin' in Louisiana) are meaty in parts, chewy in other parts and turgid with the rich, monotone taste of lard without being greasy. The interplay of tastes between the pork, the warm, starchy tuber and the cabbage's cold, hard crunch is hardy enough to withstand its Styrofoam to-go packaging, yet so vital that all three must be eaten in the same bite. You can add another vinegary dimension with Union's relish-like pico de gallo, for sale in the bakery. Plain, shoehorn-shaped slabs of fried pork skin are for sale, warm, at the meat counter.
Saturdays also bring Nicaragua's bajo; you may have to hail from Granada to love the black strips of moisture-less but somehow tender beef, accompanied by dry cabbage slaw and semi-hard, boiled plantains. On the other hand, puerco asada (pork roast) comes in fall-apart hunks, heat-blasted and crackly outside, salty and moist inside; congri, Cuba's bacon-flavored black bean and rice pilaf, comes on the side. All preparations saturated with pork fat flavor, beans -- refried, congri, the soupy black beans -- are reason enough to visit the bakery.
Several other selections represent Cuba well. The media noche is a loaf of yellow Cuban bread sliced lengthwise, stuffed with chopped roasted pork, sheer sheets of deli ham and soft Swiss cheese, then toasted in a margarine-swabbed sandwich press until thin enough to slide into an envelope. Ropa vieja, the shredded beef dish that translates to "old clothes," is so named for its ragged appearance. On Tuesdays, take-out boxes of Union's juicy ropa vieja are heavy as sacks of laundry.
The main flavoring agent in everything here is salt -- not a harsh, tongue-chapping saltiness but a broad, permeating salinity that stimulates rather than stifles the appetite.
The lunch menu lists only half the offerings. Paper signs posted arbitrarily around the bakery area list others; you'll find still others in the bakery case, like the ugly but delicious, beef-filled empanadas maduros made with mashed plantains instead of pastry dough. If the language barrier prevents you from knowing exactly what you're ordering, remember that taste determines final judgment anyway. The other day I pointed to a Nicaraguan tamale and discovered a perfect meal of achiote-dyed masa, pork, raisins and green olives packaged and steamed in a banana leaf.
Most customers are working people placing single orders that rarely cost more than $6, tax and a mango shake included. Where to eat can be a problem, since the closest place to sit -- an overused parking lot that also services Thrift City and Rock 'n' Bowl -- is unpalatable. The best possible scenario is ordering big and then heading home. With the united Latino nations of food spread across your own kitchen table, you can chart your journey as you unpack, and then eat through it.