Atoles (ah-Toll-ays) are an extended family of beverages, usually cornmeal-based, of various consistencies, that are common in Latin America. This particular Mexican atol (small, $1.50) is thin, with a faint tropical-fruit flavor. Fail to take note of the handwritten sign on the front door, and you might furrow your brow for a moment or two before you identify guayaba — guava.
Madd fruit grows on a shrubby tree native to West Africa. Slicing off the top of the fruit reveals a compacted mass that, in a Senegalese market, might be spooned out on the spot; the thin layer of pulp is sucked off the comparatively large seeds, which are discarded. The label on this jar of Zena brand preserves (270 g., $6) made a similar serving suggestion. Though sugar has been added during the production process, the tangy flavor is more sour than sweet.
The two photos at bottom show a common progression, over three years, in the appearance of a market that seems to be doing well for itself. In 2011, the awning was a simple orange-and-white; with green, these are the national colors of the Ivory Coast. By 2014, a more-elaborate awning had been installed; it better follows the contours of the building, and in full color it illustrates many of the market's staple products.
The current, Chinese-owned grocery looks out on a high school and on Sara D. Roosevelt Park. It's a good bet that if you step inside (I didn't), you'll still find chocolate, java, and pop, and many more packaged snacks and soft drinks, too. The grocery's much older predecessor, whose surviving signage can also be glimpsed at the far left of the first photo, may well have been a pizzeria. The curve, below and to the left of the "big cans" sticker, turns out to be a capital "C" when the deteriorating facing is bent back (it doesn't bend far). C-a-l-z ... "calzone".
Pendawa isn't really a cafe: It offers no tables or chairs, and the two narrow aisles, which flank a long display table, scarcely allow one shopper to squeeze by another. During my visit I briefly became stuck in a logjam, though of a genial sort. Cafe talk was supplanted by shop talk, in Indonesian and English, regarding the merits of the many locally made snacks.
In retrospect, I was holding my talam ubi (four for $2.50) upside down. These particular kue (pronounced Kway, also spelled kueh and kuih) — a broad term embracing many savories and sweets, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore — were prepared from a steamed mixture of rice flour, cassava flour, and coconut milk, as best as I could determine. The base layer, poured into cup molds first, also included sweet potato; a second layer, more purely coconutty, and perhaps sans cassava, was then poured and steamed on top.
Cafe Pendawa 1529 Morris St. (at South Mole St.), Philadelphia 215-755-6229
If your next-door neighbor is decked out in colorful fashion and your own stock in trade is rather drab, how's a store to stand out? Persaud (and to a lesser extent the All Seasons variety) has discovered that greenery can be a great-looking line of business. As befits a hardware and housewares store, the potted plants are practical as well as decorative: They include basil, peppers, and other edibles for brightening up the family dinner.
Persaud Hardware & Housewares 123-15 Liberty Ave. (123rd-124th Sts.), Richmond Hill, Queens 718-843-7382
Often referred to as a "Oaxacan pizza," a tlayuda (tlah-Yoo-dah) takes "thin crust" to an extreme. While even the crispest bar pie of my acquaintance is pliable in the middle, the tlayuda is shatteringly crisp from one edge to the other.
The name denotes both the bare, baked tortilla, which this Mexican grocery sells by the bag, and the prepared dish made with it ($9 to $12). For their basic version, the cooks at La Cienega smear the tortilla with pork lard and refried black beans, heat it on a flattop, and dress it with a mozzarella-like white cheese, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. Optional toppings — in my case nopales, or cactus, with good timing chivo, or goat — are heated separately and added as the dish is dressed. Though the assembled tlayuda, sliced like a pizza before serving, holds together only loosely, that courtesy plastic fork is less adequate to the task than nimble fingers.
Papa's has two menus. The first is plain from a distance; it offers a familiar and lengthy roster of chicken and other grilled and fried foods, halal pizza, and "world famous gyro." But up close, a second, much shorter menu also promises a "Taste of Sri Lanka at your Fingertip" [sic], lampries and kothu rotis included, and an interior doorway opens onto a cramped South Asian market.
In years past this adjoining room might have been a deli-grocery; currently a wallside refrigerator case, unplugged and stripped of its doors, provides much-needed shelf space, and the sandwich counter is a prep area for baked goods. This golden viana bun ($1.25), nearly a foot in length before I bit off the end, was encrusted with sugar; its name might point to a Portuguese heritage.
This crocodile-branded product had an Arabic-only label, but its shelfmates, which offered English translations — date molasses, pomegranate molasses, carob molasses — hinted strongly at the contents. It's grape molasses ($2.45), clarified the Lebanese proprietor of this brand-new halal grocery, which officialy opened its doors just after Ramadan. Sweeter and thinner than sugarcane molasses, it pairs well with tahini in an "Arabic PB&J."
On a postprandial hunt for sweets, my dining buddies bought an assortment of cocadas at this Mexican shop. The best of the batch had a caramelized appeal, much like the ones sold by a pushcart vendor at an Ecuadorian festival last summer. This evening's sweet wasn't as gooey, however; most if not all of Zocalo de Atlixco's cocadas were commercially wrapped, and imported from Puebla.
I also bought this jamoncillo (74 g., $2), likewise from Puebla, and wearing the La Esmeralda brand. The name refers to at least two distinct confections. One, generally spelled out as jamoncillo de leche, is often translated as Mexican fudge; the other, shown here, was identified on its label as a dulce de semilla de calabaza — a pumpkin-seed sweet. (To be sure, calabaza frequently serves as a catch-all for pumpkins and squashes in many shapes and sizes.) Though sugar leads the short list of ingredients, this jamoncillo wasn't overly sweet — a nice change of pace from the cocadas.
Zocalo de Atlixco Deli Grocery 5623 Fifth Ave. (at 57th St.), Sunset Park, Brooklyn 718-439-0575