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Although carniceria literally means “butcher shop” in Spanish, most of the carnicerias in Chattanooga look like a small market when you first step through the door. The grocery aisles are a mix of the familiar and the not-so-familiar. Pasta and spaghetti sauce may share an aisle with prepared moles and tamarind pods. The spice sections in the larger carnicerias are a goldmine of what are considered specialty or hard-to-find spices in the big chain stores. You can find dried lavender, eucalyptus, and even hibiscus for less than a bottle of McCormick black pepper.
If you look closely, somewhere, tucked away in a corner will be a glass case filled with fresh-baked breads and pastries. Pan dulce: a chewy, lightly sweetened Mexican bread topped with a sweet, topping and buñuelo: a thin, deep-fried pastry normally sprinkled with a cinnamon-and-sugar mixture is delicious and comforting. If the gods are with you, there will be bolillo, the bread used to make the crack of the sandwich world, the Mexican torta.
Come for the butt, stay for the liver
The best parts of the local carniceria are the butcher shop and the restaurant, an incredible resource for inexpensive eats. They have beef, chicken, and some seafood, usually tilapia and shrimp, but the star of the show is our friend Mr. Pig. LOA # 7 at Main and Market will even order a whole pig for you if you are in the mood for a little roast piggy. But whatever animal you decide to invite for dinner, rest assured every part of that animal is available and very reasonably priced.
Stroll a little further back to the wondrous land of the carniceria restaurant. There are old tables, mismatched chairs and figuring out where to order may be a guessing game at first. But once you get your bearings you’ll find many familiar foods, just in an unfamiliar setting: carne asada (grilled steak), chorizo (a fresh Mexican sausage), pollo (chicken), or lengua (beef tongue. The tacos are usually $1.25 to $1.50 each and come in two corn tortillas with a variety of condiments you can add yourself.
Keep in mind that you may have to ask to see the full menu—sometimes only the day’s specials or the taco menu is displayed to the general public. At Loa #6 on Lee Highway, the asada plate is a must-have. A huge pile of lean, perfectly seasoned steak is cooked to order, chopped into small pieces and served with their home-style beans and rice with tortillas. Once you get your food you can belly up to the condiment bar and pimp your platter with an array of sauces, salsas, including cactus (salsa nopalitos) and a guacamole that is spectacular. This guacamole is not dip like you get at the Americanized Latin places, it is almost saucelike in consistency, and those big balls in the guacamole are the avocado pits. Just leave them in the pan. LOA #7 has a slightly smaller restaurant, but on Fridays they serve a whole, fried tilapia plate for the same price you’d pay for a fish sandwich, fries, drink and a side of shame at the golden arches. It’s a whole fish, so take advantage of those little tasty morsels of tilapia cheek meat that we rarely ever get here in the South.
Remember, when you see the latest Bobby Flay meat-and-two-sauces recipe or when you find a perfect dish but it has that expensive or unfamiliar ingredient, check with your local carniceria or market. Odds are good they will have just what you need and it will be cheaper, better quality, and you will be supporting a local business.
Hot off the griddle
• Good Fences Brewery, started by the owners of The Georgia Winery, has released an IPA as their flagship beer.
• The owners of Petunia’s Silver Jalapeno are getting ready to open Gin Gin’s, a full-service, contemporary Southern restaurant in Walden.
• On Dec. 3, MainX24 has some interesting events:
8 to 11 a.m. in Niedlov’s parking lot, Link 41 will be lard-frying Niedlov’s doughnuts.
2 to 4 p.m. The Terminal Brewhouse will be showcasing molecular gastronomy.
7 to 9 p.m. Fiesta at Taqueria Jalisco with a mariachi band, complimentary sangria and food specials.
Mike McJunkin is a foodie, chef, musician and, in his spare time, keeps our computers and networks running smoothly. Got a tip for the column? Email him at http://scr.im/sushiandbisc.