Miracle at the Mercado

There are few culinary pejoratives more damning than "mall food." Food-court food is fast food in more sterile surroundings than usual, ethnic specialties assimilated until only the faintest traces of the culture of its origin linger like a ghost. It's hot dogs that are no more than tubular bologna, pizza-by-the-slice whose oregano content couldn't be measured with a mass spectrograph, enchiladas with plastic cheese and no flavor. Unless, that is, the "mall" in question is the delightful New Flea Market on Long Point in Spring Branch, where offbeat retail opportunities stand stall-by-stall alongside some of Houston's most authentic Mexican eateries.

An afternoon at the New Flea Market is the next best thing to a weekend shopping trip to Mexico. And just as a trip to a south-of-the-border mercado is a daylong meal comprising snacks -- the venerable People's Guide to Mexico coined the phrase "street grunting" to describe the grazing -- a trip to sample the delights of this Hispanic niche of the multiculturalism that is Long Point is best enjoyed by hopping from stall to stall.

This is Mexican food, not Tex-Mex, and the opportunities to dine begin even before a shopper enters the building. To the right of the front door is the Refresqueria Rio Verde, where the specialty of the house is roasted corn. Two dollars buys a cardboard bowl of tender kernels, roasted in the shuck before being stripped from the cob. Dollops of mayonnaise, butter and sour cream are added and stirred in with generous quantities of lemon pepper, hot sauce and lime juice. The result is rich and delicious, with a flavor that ranges from sweet to sweat-inducing in a single bite. Roasting the moist, tender ears of corn results in a much firmer texture than steaming them, and ensures that the flavor of the kernels isn't lost in the richness of the sauce. This surprisingly complex bowl of corn deserves to be savored slowly while strolling through the market toward further refreshments.

The various food stands at the New Flea Market tend to come and go; during a recent visit I was sad to note the absence of a portable taco stand that someone had ingeniously crafted out of a trailer-mounted boat. That vessel, once moored to the sidewalk outside the front door opposite the corn stand, perhaps ran afoul of city health inspectors, whose enthusiasm for vigorously enforcing the smallest details of the health code has made them well-known, if not necessarily well-liked, in the Hispanic entrepreneurial community. But whatever the reason, the little boat seems to have sailed for fairer waters, leaving only fond memories of fajita tacos in its wake.

One New Flea Market eatery that has achieved a degree of permanence, though, is the Taqueria Las Campanas. This tidy little five-table establishment, which is located near the rear of the market, devotes itself to meat dishes -- tacos, gorditas and tortas -- prepared exactly as they are in the owners' hometown of Queretaro, Mexico. The subtle regional differences of Mexican cuisine -- often indistinguishable to Anglos -- inspire ferocious, lifelong hometown loyalties. The friend who introduced me to Las Campanas is from Queretaro, and is adamant that the tortas made there are the best in all of Mexico. And so we dined on tortas, and watched the satellite-fed entertainment of futbol on a small TV as the brown-eyed toddler with us stared with quiet fascination at a peer at an adjoining table.

It's surprising, given the enthusiasm of the American public for sandwiches of any and every description, that the torta hasn't enjoyed the popularity of the taco and burrito. While many Anglos' idea of a Mexican handmeal invariably involves tortillas and frijoles, Mexicans themselves often pledge their allegiance to the sandwiches encased in the small, chewy loaves known as bollilos. The fajita torta at Las Campanas is a delightfully gooey treat, with tender chunks of grilled beef smothered in mayonnaise and slices of ripe avocado. The "hot" version, which has been slathered in a creamy mustard dressing, is even tastier, the mustard contrasting sharply with a copious layer of onions.

Another Las Campanas treat that my friend from Queretaro considers essential is the pastor taco. This comes much closer to standard Anglo expectations of Mexican food: a spicy combination of beef and pork, simmered together for hours in a thin, zesty gravy and served on a double corn tortilla with generous amounts of cilantro and onions. Although the meat is tender and flavorful, it's overwhelmed by the pungent bite of fresh cilantro. This is not necessarily a bad thing, at least for cilantro lovers, but what flavor of the meat I could taste was intriguing enough to cause me to wish that the cilantro had been less generously applied. My friend spoke highly of the higado taco as well, but my attitude toward liver has not changed since the Kennedy administration, so I sampled instead a chicharron gordita. The gordita, a thick cornmeal pancake that had been split in half and stuffed, was generous in size and perfect in taste and texture. But the stewed pork skins that filled it are completely different from the deep-fried snack food version I'm familiar with. It was certainly an interesting flavor, and is definitely an acquired taste -- and not one that's acquired quickly and easily. Still, a gordita that so clearly demonstrates the potential of masa deserves a return visit and a slightly more conventional stuffing.

The third essential stall to visit -- for refreshment, at least, -- is the Refresqueria Marimar, a couple of booths over from Las Campanas. Marimar's specialty is traditional Mexican iced drinks: hand-squeezed limeade and similar drinks based on cantaloupe and watermelon juices. Most outstanding is the tamarindade, which has a vibrant, fruity flavor with a noticeable tealike taste. Indeed, a sip of Marimar's tamarind drink leads to inevitable comparisons with the plethora of flavored teas that have come out over the last decade, until by the third sip the shopper realizes that this is what Snapple was trying to accomplish.

Any successful restaurateur understands instinctively the importance of atmosphere, and it's the unique ambiance as much as the food that makes visiting the New Flea Market such a treat. There's a heady exuberance that permeates this cavernous tribute to the versatility of tilt-wall construction; it's bright, it's noisy, it's fun. This is an extremely kid-friendly, family-oriented environment, something even normally rambunctious toddlers seem to realize instinctively. It could be that they're just overwhelmed by the sensory overload, but the stroller brigade is invariably wide-eyed and intrigued rather than bored and noisy. And woe to anyone who thinks he can just duck into the New Flea Market for a quick bite to eat before getting on down the road; the urge to amble and browse is irresistible. If you can find the stall with the exquisite garlands of ceramic vegetables, you'll also find some wonderful deals on self-cooling cantero earthenware water jugs -- and at 5 p.m. every Sunday, the masked marvels of the Texas Mexican Wrestling Association, whose auditorium is just past the video arcade, demonstrate the manly sport of professional wrestling. Ambiance doesn't get any more unique than that.

New Flea Market, 8315 Long Point, 722-7122.


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