Bay Area Eats: Mi Pueblo's Fantastic Deli
Taken at night, under awful lighting, and while keeping a whole bunch of hungry people at arm's length, the pictures here don't do justice to the food. They don't, for instance, capture the meltingly soft, tender texture of the lengua or cow's tongue, simmered in a thick, stew-like sauce. Neither do they capture the sharp tartness or the hot pepper bite of the cactus salad. And I didn't even manage to take a shot of the juicy, fatty carnitas or roast, marinated pork that were the star of the show – these were set upon and devoured far too quickly.
So guys, I know these pictures leave much to the imagination. But imagine, if you will, the convenience of being able to sweep into a deli, pick up a pound (or three) of everything that looks delicious, toss a hefty bag of fresh, house-made tortillas into your cart, and then sweep out again—the night's dinner gathering for eight taken care of, and your wallet only $50 lighter.
At Mi Pueblo Foods in San Jose, California, the music is blaring, the staff are friendly, and the aisles are filled to colorful overflow with fresh produce – from yucca root, to murder weapon-looking spiky chayotes, and bags of cleaned, diced cactus pads. The gem, however, is at the back of the store, where cooked foods are laid out and sold by the pound. There is always a line, but the staff are remarkably patient with customers calling out orders and requesting samples of the carnitas (which they happily hand over in a tortilla). Somehow, between me speaking zero Spanish, them speaking little English, and lots of gesturing and smiling, I always manage to walk out with all kinds of deliciousness.
Which, on that day, meant meats, two different types of salsas, two types of ceviches, cactus salad, and guacamole. The salsas were a chunky, vibrant "house" salsa and a smooth, green, and super spicy molcajete salsa (which we carted to an oyster farm the next day for drizzling on plump, briny, bivalves... very nice!). The ceviches were shrimp and fish, with the shrimp ceviche being excellent—boasting a good, firm bite from the use of whole baby shrimp. The fish ceviche was plenty fresh, but was too close in texture to ground meat for my liking. And the guacamole had been blended with herbs to a smooth, drizzleable consistency, had a lot of kick, and had everyone clamoring for more.
I'm often suspicious of deli food, mostly because my head imagines that it arrives from some factory production line, assembled by anonymous people with nets in their hair and sterile masks on their faces. The irrational me is convinced that food made with no heart cannot possibly taste good. At Mi Pueblo, there's an open door behind the counter through which you can spy people bustling about, pots, trays, and assorted cookware in hand. You can also hear the unmistakable sounds of a kitchen in full service (good-natured, to-fro hollering in Spanish included). Even more hearteningly, there are two massive copper pots behind the counters—each big enough to easily fit three Angelina Jolies. From the smells wafting in the air, my guess is that those pots are where the carnitas are first covered in lard and braised over very low heat, before being flash-roasted at high heat to get the outsides satisfyingly crisp and smokey.
I would not recommend Mi Pueblo if you or your guests can't take the heat—pretty much everything we've tried has plenty of spice. A good way to test the waters is to visit the taqueria on-site, and order, say, one of their lengua tacos. At $1.39 a pop, three would make a very decent meal. Mi Pueblo has a number of stores scattered about the South Bay area of San Francisco. The one we go to is the huge one in San Jose—mostly because it always feels like a party in there. We've also been to the postage stamp-sized one in Mountain View, but the deli section is almost nonexistent, and we've noticed prices to be higher than in the San Jose store. They do, however have a window at the entrance of the store where you can order tacos to go.