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Checking Out Paradise

Supermercado Chapala's tender carnitas, memorable guac and friendly patrons give Misty a taste of paradise.
Monday Jul 09, 2007.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

What would you do with 20 fresh limes? Make a gigantic batch of minty mojitos? Whip up a bowl of lime-green Jell-O? It doesn't really matter…not when all 20 cost $1 at Supermercado Chapala, my favorite neighborhood grocer and Mexican diner. And that's only one of the deals at this always-packed market, where you'll also find fresh pineapple, melt-in-your-mouth carnitas and, best of all, an unassuming cafe in the back that only a handful of locals seem to have a clue about.

I happened upon it a few months ago when I first started really exploring my new Rogers Park neighborhood. The smiling fella out front, who served elote (corn on the cob slicked with mayonnaise, cayenne, cheese and lime) to everyone who happened by, caught my eye first. Then, out of my peripheral vision, I saw the word "taqueria". Ahhh, that's what I'm talking about. Taco joints in the back of grocery stores get first dibs on produce and meats, which means they serve up superior goods to a steady stream of customers all day long. And the goods at Supermercado Chapala are superior, indeed.

Everything from the carne asada tacos to the cheesy quesadillas are plum delicious, but the carnitas stand in a league of their own. Dripping with wet juices, tender to the bone and cheap as all get out, a whopping carnitas burrito is the way to go. The cooks whip them out rapid fire, stuffing them with lettuce, cilantro, tomato, sour cream, a slather of refried beans and homemade guacamole that rivals my own. Washing down a bite of this creation with a sip of sugary horchata (served with no ice, yet still frosty cold) is pure happiness. Don't forget to squirt every nibble with a dollop of the smoky chipolte salsa that hangs out on every table.

Last time I was in, I witnessed an old-timer create his own little patch of paradise by snatching up a corn tortilla from a pile, tucking it into a swath of aluminum foil, layering it with a pinch of carnitas and dousing each bite in lime and guacamole. I stopped dead in my tracks after witnessing this performance, halting the traffic trying to flow in front of the cash register, which sits next to a glass-encased buffet of sorts. The spread's offerings change up all the time, but fluffy piles of burnt-orange rice are always on display. If you happen to time your lunch correctly, you'll catch fresh-off-the-stove food and exceptional, I'm told, beans and brain. Behind the register, a small cooler stocks tubs of homemade guacamole and several variations of salsa and pico de gallo for a few bucks each. Everyone I've sprung the guac on has had a fit, demanding to know where I purchased it; you have to roll in early, though, as it sells out quickly.

I once had a hankering for rice pudding, and a random stranger pointed out the sweetest serving I've ever come across in a market. He also broke all grocery-store rules by opening a bag of tortilla chips to let me sample a golden triangle. After so joyfully defying the norm, he then ushered me over to some cheese in a can, detailing the perfect way to create jalapeno nachos the entire way. As I pulled out my wallet in the checkout lane, the bagger exclaimed loudly at my purchases and practically invited himself to partake in my nacho fest. See, everyone's a friend at Supermercado Chapala, except when it comes to that last boat of carnitas. At the tail end of the pork drippings, we've got trouble in paradise.

The Final Rave:
The parking is free and Romanian Kosher Sausage Company, another gem of a store, sits right across the street. Tell no one.

Do It: Pilsen
I still can’t get enough of this 'hood, even though Rogers Park is loaded with restaurants just like the ones on 18th.

Drink It: La Unica
Yes, I'm still addicted to the tamales and the cafe con leche at this back-of-the-grocery-store cafe.

Eat It: Marigold
This popular Indian haunt has the best rice pudding I've ever tasted. You will be stunned upon first bite.

Get Crazy With It: 2nd Annual Celebrate Clark St. Festival
July 14 and 15, you can sample all that North Clark Street has to offer at this fest. It runs from Devon to Touhy, and my pals at Supermercado Chapala will have a booth. You know where I'll be!


Explore More

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Brand-New Bars

Get divey on Grace; go downstairs at River North's Curio.

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Go Dutch at Vincent and satisfy a familiar sweet tooth at BomBon.

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