SHREWSBURY AVENUE SPICES UP BANCO ROJO

Nopales, left, and sabila, above, are available at Rincon Latino Supermarket. (Photos by Grace Goldoni. Click to enlarge)

By GRACE GOLDONI

Rich South American hot chocolate in blocks. Subtropical coconuts. Exotic, prickly and tangy vegetables.

We’re not in your typical white-bread American supermarket. Here on Shrewsbury Avenue, the main thoroughfare on Red Bank’s West Side, the striking flavors of fresh and authentic Latin food create a south-of-the-border atmosphere.

In recent decades, this commercial stretch has adopted a strong Latino accent, just like its surrounding neighborhoods. If you’ve never stepped outside your car and visited this street, home to about half a dozen bodegas and small grocers, well, grab a shopping cart…

Dried chili peppers, above, at La Juquila, and fresh fruit and vegetable juices at La Chaparrita, below. (Photos by Grace Goldoni. Click to enlarge)

Nowhere is the avenue’s Spanish flair more obvious than at Rincon Latino Supermarket, at 218 Shrewsbury. Despite its intimate space, Rincon has, by far, the largest selection of exotic and unique fruits and vegetables among the stores redbankgreen visited. Upon walking into the market, a shopper encounters bright colors and unique food combinations, like jarred mangoes paired with chili sauce.

In the produce section, foods such as nopales, sabila, quenepas, and chayote demand attention. The term nopales, or nopalitos, refer to the thickset leaves of a prickly pear cactus, eaten as a vegetable and commonly used as an ingredient in Mexican cuisine.

Sabila – the Spanish term for aloe vera, grown mainly in the Caribbean – is sold not as a gelatinous liquid, but in its full, green plant form at the market. A Rincon store employee noted that many customers believe sabila aids in diabetes prevention. Quenepas, commonly known in Spanish slang as mamones, are a kind of Spanish lime native to South and Central America. Quenepas are slightly larger than the average grape, but look like miniature limes. Cracking the fruit open by pressing the outer shell with a fingernail reveals the edible tender, pale-orange pulp, rich with a sweet and slightly sour flavor. Chayote, commonly known among Hispanics by its slang name cho cho, is a palm-sized, bright lime-green gourd – like melon or squash – with a taste akin to cucumbers.

Down the street at Juanito’s, Shrewsbury Avenue’s largest Latino grocer, the aroma of sizzling onions and spicy peppers welcomes customers. The fragrance comes from the market’s taco station, where a cook hand-makes personal tacos for shoppers on the go. I was also surprised to spot a treat at Juanito’s I had only previously seen on the streets of the Republic of Panama: raspado, the Latino-version of a snow cone, flavored with a choice of fruit syrups and topped with condensed milk, making for a cool and sweet dessert, perfect for a hot day.

Next door to Juanito’s, an authentic Mexican grocery called La Chaparrita offers fresh fruit and vegetable juices using an industrial juicer, and specializes in Mexican carry-out food. If you have time for a sit-down lunch, La Chaparrita also has a charming seating area. Tortas de papa, one of its periodic specials, is simply mouth-watering. Sandwiches with, well, whatever you want, plus potatoes, served on a crusty roll, La Chaparrita’s tortas are characteristically Mexican: served hot, as opposed to cold in other countries, and reminiscent of a Cuban sandwich or panini.

Down the street from La Chaparrita lies a bodega called Tienda La China Poblana. “Tienda” means “store,” and “China Poblana” refers to two parts of Mexican culture: “Poblana,” or the women of the Mexican state of Puebla, and “China,” connoting a slave woman brought to Mexico who, according to legend, created the China dress. “China Poblana” is a broad term that refers to Mexican femininity.

Among the packaged flour for tamales and spices, China Poblana sells beautiful, high-quality coconuts from Mexico. The woman maintaining the store reminded me that the Spanish word “coco” refers to “skull” or “head.” When I asked why, she motioned to the three subtle holes on the coconut, which resemble a human face.

Just around the corner and opposite the train station is La Esquina, or “the corner,” where shoppers can find excellent Mexican carry-out for breakfast as well as lunch.

“What we sell here is tacos and sandwiches,” says owner Elias Junior. “Our style is authentic Mexican food.”

From pig ears to chicharrón, a dish consisting of fried pork rinds, everything on the menu at La Esquina is sure to give your taste buds a wake-up call. Chicharrón is a traditional food throughout Central and South America.

Finally, back on Shrewsbury Avenue, stepping into La Juquila is like entering a spice shop. Smells of exotic herbs and salts as well as dried red-hot chili peppers fill the bodega.  La Juquila also sells every ingredient you need to make tamales in your own kitchen. A traditional Mesoamerican dish, tamales are made out of masa, a starchy corn dough, which is boiled or steamed in a leaf wrapper. Before eating, the leaf wrapper is thrown out. Tamales are usually filled with meat, cheese, fruits, vegetables, chilies, spices, and other food combinations.