Northgate Gonzalez Market1410 S 43rd St. San Diego, CA 92113 (619) 266-6080
The way I feel when entering a fantastically stocked grocery store is probably akin to how most ladies feel when there's a particularly good sale on, or when their boyfriends surprise them with a trip to the jewelry store. My future husband will no doubt be overjoyed to know that a chunk of pink Himalayan rock salt or amber-colored rock sugar would probably go over as well as a rock that I could wear on my ring finger. A great produce section does for me what a display case full of sparkly baubles might do for other women—my pulse quickens, my eyes widen and my heart flutters in anticipation of all the things that I'll pile in my cart, some based on their pretty colors alone (I guess there's still a bit of girl in me yet, despite all my best efforts).
At a whopping 60,000 square feet, Northgate Gonzalez hardly resembles your neighborhood Mexican market. In size and scope, it's more like the Albertsons that used to occupy the space, only this store is far more interesting. The Southcrest location, just off Interstate 805 at 43rd Street, is the first, and largest, Northgate outpost in our area, part of a chain of stores run by the Gonzalez family and well-known throughout Mexico.
The huge space is almost too large to navigate in one trip, so I usually stick to the sections along the walls of the store, since the inner aisles of any market are where most of the processed foods are sold, anyway. I sometimes venture into the interior, just to marvel at the rows of brightly labeled snacks and sauces and to try to test my regrettably limited Spanish vocabulary, which consists mostly of food words.
But, mostly, I come to Northgate to eat—and eat well—since the prepared foods here are unmatched by other markets.
A candy cart, laden with Mexican sweets, is set up near one of the shop's entrances, perhaps to provide the sugar kick needed to make a thorough sweep of the store. Nearby, the pasteleria sells freshly baked cakes, including my favorite milk-drenched tres leches cake and eggy rounds of flan. Turn the corner and walk smack into a case stacked six rows high with trays of pan dulces, cookies and other pastries and bins of, at times, still-warm sandwich rolls.
In front of the panaderia is Northgate's impressive produce section, full of the amazing shades of green found in Mexican cooking. Nopales, or cactus pads, are available with or without thorns, depending on your level of dedication.
Heaps of limes, green chilies, paper-husked tomatillos, green onions and plush piles of cilantro are sold at fair prices. If you've come with friends, this is the time to pool your money as you start to build the meal that'll cap off your shopping excursion. The next counter holds a salsa bar, addictive pickled carrots and jalapeños, crumbly queso fresco and pungent cotija cheeses and, the best part: an array of fresh ceviches and cold marinated seafood. The aguachile verde, halved whole shrimp soaking in a citrusy green chile “water” and the ceviche of chopped shrimp and tomatoes is good, but I crave the version that features whole bay shrimp, fat nuggets of octopus, chunks of avocado and lots of cilantro.
The wild-kingdom part of the tour follows as you roll your cart past the meat department, where every imaginable part of your favorite farm animals is on display, all the earthy nose-to-tail bits and pre-marinated, more familiar cuts. You can pick up the pace a little if you're squeamish, but I love inspecting every intriguing-looking thing.
Skip around to the other side of the market, stopping to pick up a pack of freshly steamed corn tortillas or a bag of crunchy tostadas from the tortilleria. Steam tables stretch along the length of a wall, warming trays of savory stews and in the tiny taqueria where the ladies put together mini tacos to order from an assortment of braised and roasted meats, including carnitas and birria.
When some friends and I were there around dinnertime a few weeks ago, we each got a few tacos and shared a plate of stewed pork ribs, soft and spicy in green chile sauce. Shards of tostada provided sturdy flat surfaces on which to balance spoonfuls of ceviche, which we washed down with rainbow-colored aguas frescas. Rarely is a shopping trip so satisfying.