Published On: Wed, Aug 30th, 2017

Home Is Where Fiesta Mart Is


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[Photographs: Travis Hallmark]

Before Fiesta, going to the grocery store in our little suburb of Dallas, where I grew up in the early 2000s, was a weekly ritual that almost inevitably became an exercise in frustration. If you didn’t subscribe to the meat-and-potatoes approach to eating, the main chains in our neighborhood—Albertsons and Tom Thumb—didn’t cater to your culinary needs. My parents are first-generation Indian immigrants, and our meatless diet consisted of lentils, rice, and vegetables. We were sick of paying $5 for a small knob of just-okay ginger at Whole Foods. Our sabzis (vegetables stir-fried in spices) lacked texture. Our masalas had no body. Kachumber, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions dressed in lime and chilies, ended up a one-note, mealy disappointment. The powdered spices and rock-hard okra we were buying just weren’t doing it for us.

Then we found Fiesta, a Texas-based supermarket initially built to serve the vast Latinx population throughout the state. At Fiesta, not only was the produce fresh and flavorful, but we could find the kinds of vegetables that had previously required driving halfway across town to the Indian grocery store to procure—obscure varieties of green chilies, bitter gourd, lotus root. These were the ingredients that made our sabzis sing and brought life to those sad salads. We could make homemade cilantro chutney that actually tasted bright and refreshing, and khichdi, a rice, lentil, and vegetable stew, using green beans and squash that had heft and structure. It’s no exaggeration to say that the store changed our lives.

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But the produce was only one part of Fiesta’s appeal. It was the rest of the store, filled with packaged foods from across Mexico and Central and South America, that turned Fiesta into a collective family fascination. After we picked up our veggies, we’d wander the rest of the aisles to explore what else was on offer. Every trip, it was something different. On one occasion, we discovered the spicy, better-than-Doritos snack Takis; on another, it was crumbly, salty Cacique-brand Cotija cheese, which slowly replaced feta as our omelette cheese of choice. And there were the countless times we visited the bakery, a small but mighty section that always smelled of butter and cinnamon, to pick up the tres leches cake—rich but not too sweet, a perennial favorite among our cousins—for someone’s birthday. Everything is made fresh daily, from the fluffy conchas coated with pink cracklings of sugar to the buñuelos, thick but delicate chips dusted generously with cinnamon.

My family’s story is not unique. Since its inception in 1972, Fiesta has provided a taste of home to many thousands of immigrants in Texas—including those from Korea, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. The store’s website claims that it currently serves customers from over 100 different countries, and, according to reps from the company, locations actively try to hire members of immigrant communities, to enhance the stores’ feeling of familiarity for their diverse customer base.

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More than just a store, Fiesta is a source of comfort—a reminder to so many that a grocery chain in Texas exists to look out for those who aren’t originally from here, whether their starting point is Mexico or India, and for whom the typical American grocery almost always falls short.

The concept of the cultishly beloved grocery store certainly doesn’t begin and end with Fiesta. I’ve visited upstate New York’s Wegmans, so adored for its friendly employees and affordable prices that one high school dedicated an entire musical to the chain. And over in Florida, the stuffed-to-the-brim deli subs at Publix have earned their own rabid fans. But for loyal Fiesta shoppers like me, its draw is different from that of other popular regional groceries. It’s the sort of place where you can put in a request for any item, be it chili-coated Diana Hot Corn Chips from El Salvador or an emergency replenishment of El Yucateco XXXtra habanero hot sauce (a personal favorite of my dad’s), and the store will try to get it for you. It’s a place where you know every single vegetable has been individually chosen and inspected, and that the mantecadas will always be fluffy and fresh. Luis Castellano, a customer who has patronized Fiesta since he immigrated to the States a few years ago, tells me that the store feels exactly like his market in Mexico. “The vast majority of what my family used to buy, we find here,” he says, holding a bottle of Doña María Mole, his longtime favorite sauce brand.

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Fiesta is also a place for Texans to get a glimpse into the vibrancy of the food scene that exists just south of the border: the aromatic buns, the hundreds of varieties of tortillas, the Technicolor bottles of Mexican soda. On my last visit, I spoke to a regular named Waqar Ahmed, who, like me, initially came in for the produce, but found a much more robust salsa selection at Fiesta than at any of the national grocery chains—he buys only from Fiesta now, he says. Another customer, Linda Perry, fell hard for the vast ice cream aisle, which included flavors like mango and coconut that she hadn’t seen before.

For now, Fiesta is exclusive to Texas, though there are plenty of states with robust Latinx populations that would benefit from the presence of one (or many) of its stores. Still, it remains an important symbol in the Lone Star State—a reminder that, for all its famed conservatism, Texas is defined by its immigrant communities. And thank goodness, since Texas food culture is way better because of them.


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