The greater Kalamazoo area has a number of small grocery stores, each with a unique offering of foods and finds. This series takes a look at those stores and the unique foods savvy shoppers can discover at them.
Carlos Cardona and Sandra Lopez lived in Grand Rapids for 17 years before deciding to open a grocery store in Kalamazoo in 2008 — Tienda Guatemalteca La Costeñita, at 2111 S. Burdick St. During the store’s first year, the husband-and-wife team commuted 45 minutes to run the store, originally located on Portage Street.
“Our friends in Kalamazoo really pushed us (to open a store here),” Cardona says. “They kept telling us to open a store here because there was only one Mexican store in the Kalamazoo area, and with no competition, if the prices in the store are high, there’s really no other choice.”
Cardona and Lopez, who are originally from Guatemala, stock foods in their store from many countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean to accommodate different regional tastes.
“People from different countries like different things. People from Cuba like green bananas, for example, Mexicans love hard corn tortillas for making tostadas, and Central Americans love Malher food seasonings,” Cardona says. “We try to have what everyone wants.”
If you go to Tienda Guatemalteca La Costeñita, here are five to-try items, according to Cardona:
Piloncillo is pure, unrefined cane sugar pressed into a conical shape — the name means “little pylon” — and tastes like a rich brown sugar with molasses tones.
“It’s used to sweeten different types of cakes and breads made by Mexicans, including pancho cake, which is made during Christmas,” Cardona says
On one shelf in the store, in unassuming clear plastic produce bags, are mounds of sun-dried shrimp. If the idea of eating dried shrimp freaks you out, you’re not alone.
“I don’t personally eat them, no,” Cardona says, wrinkling his nose. “But some people come in here, rip the bag open and start walking around the store eating them. They love them!”
According to online recipe blogs and food encyclopedias, dried prawn are often found in outdoor markets in Mexico and, aside from being served as snacks, are used to spice different types of foods with seafood undertones.
A Guatemalan treat that Cardona recommends is jarred Goya pacayas, which are the flowers of a palm tree pickled in brine. According to the Goya jar label, eating these treats straight from the jar is the norm, but they can also be dipped in egg batter, deep-fried and served with tomato salsa.
“They taste a little like pickles, and they’re what I like to eat when I don’t want to eat meat but I want to feel full,” Cardona says.
Another Guatemalan food Cardona suggests is incaparina, a hot cereal that is a mixture of corn and cottonseed flour fortified with protein and vitamins. Cardona remembers the cereal from his childhood. He says that schools served the mix as a beverage to children at meal times and that it tastes a bit like a milkshake.
Dried spice mixes
Cardona and Lopez make their own spice mixes from wholesale spices and sell them in small portions for cooking. Their spice selections range from chile-lime mixes to cinnamon.