At the sparkling new East Palo Alto store, a former Circuit City across from Ikea, you walk in and immediately catch the welcoming scents of tamarind pods and taqueria.
Cynthia Arroyo, 16, goes there for coffee every morning on her way to school. The Arroyo family lives nearby and has hardly been to Costco since mid-November, when Mi Pueblo became East Palo Alto's first supermarket in 23 years. As she says: "If we need cilantro, we go to Mi Pueblo. Apples, cheese: Mi Pueblo. The produce is so fresh, and they don't sell cigarettes."
Tiled tables offer plenty of seating, and there is festive music and Mexican village scenery. The menu is huge and adaptable. Have your carne asada (grilled beef) on a platter, as a burrito or taco, or by the pound. A combo plate of chicken or beef fajitas ($4.99) comes with beans and rice.
The staff is friendly and helpful. Wondering if the earthy mole sauce is too spicy for your palate? Ask for a taste, as at an ice cream parlor.
Here are a few of my favorite things:
1. Deep, rich mole with tender chicken ($6.99 a pound)
2. Chewy, sweet barbecued pork ribs ($6.49 a pound)
3. Chile relleno ($3.29) with paper-thin batter, in light tomato sauce, sprinkled with queso fresco
4. Tender cubes of beef tongue in green salsa ($6.99 a pound)
5. Shrimp ceviche tostada ($2.99)
6. Carne asada soft taco ($1.35)
7. Carnitas ($5.99 a pound)
I didn't love the tamales ($1.49 each), with their high ratio of masa to meat. The fish ceviche paled next to the shrimp, and the grilled pork (al pastor) was a bit dry.
Spotting my group studying the thirst-quenching aguas frescas, another counterperson offered us tastes. These fresh fruit drinks tamp down the heat and herbs of taqueria fare.
Although cheery and fun, Mi Pueblo may not be where you want to dine. But when choosing food to go, consider your travel time. Ceviche tostadas quickly get soggy. Chiles rellenos may need reheating. If you aren't going to eat right away, my advice is to buy the parts and assemble your meal yourself. Such as: a pack of crispy corn tortillas, a quarter pound of shrimp ceviche, some house-made ranch-style guacamole, a little queso fresco to sprinkle on top.
Or match your stews or carnitas with a fresh-baked roll (20 cents!) or a family pack of 50 corn tortillas ($2.49), still steaming. There are green (jalapeno) tortillas, red (chipotle), white and purple corn. The leftover tortillas freeze nicely.
This is only the latest of many Mi Pueblos around Northern California. Best known to Mountain View residents is the much-loved and much-visited store on South Rengstorff Avenue, right near the train tracks.
Mi Pueblo Food Center
1731 Bayshore Road, East Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 6 a.m.-10 p.m.