by Jessica Resendez
In Orange County, there’s no shortage of corporate-owned fast food joints like Taco Bell and Chipotle. Newcomers might find these places convenient for a quick bite to eat, but what about the mom and pop shops of America — one whose bakery is more likely to be called a panaderia or where a Latino marketplace is known as a mercado?
In Santa Ana, there is such a place, and it’s called Puerto Madero, off of West 17th Street and North Bristol Street across from Santa Ana College — where locals come to get their regular fixes of South American delicacies and fútbol entertainment.
Outside, homebound schoolyard kids travel in guppy-like packs while bike-riding commuters weave around traffic
just to get here.
Puffy paint etchings of menu items on the building’s windows and an assembly line of South American flags draped along the interior window’s top frame are examples of Puerto Madera’s unique South American flare.
Inside, the sound of a sentimental Spanish ballad plays while smells of chicken and beef tango with hungry noses.
Sectioned off into three distinct areas, the layout consists of: the marketplace on the left, the deli side to the right and a central checkout aisle with rows of plantain chips and bags of pan dulce con frutas (sweet bread with fruit) begging to be yanked off their flimsy, red shelves.
Hungry and ready to grub, locals make their way to the deli to check out the menu and satisfy their afternoon cravings. Between Argentinian empanadas, sandwiches, pizza, potatoes and dessert, most decide to go for a sandwich called the “chivito” and empanadas varying from ham and cheese, chicken and beef for just $1.50 each.
How to even begin describing the “chivito” is a feat in of itself. This carnivorous mountain of a sandwich is filled with thick layers of ribeye steak, ham, provolone cheese, bacon, red bell peppers, olives, lettuce, tomato, house dressing and two monstrous buns the size of saucer dishes. It’s one of the marketplace’s best sellers, but regulars Juan and Henry both agree that “the chivito has everything, but it [also] has lots of calorías.”
Constantly giggling, Juan says that today, he opted for the pastrami sandwich, while his buddy Henry went for the steak sandwich. He sits back in his chair, rubs his stomach, and slowly breathes out:
“The food is really good… really, really, really good!” exclaimed Juan.
Regardless of all the calories, people continue to munch away at their empanadas — each one the size of a large dumpling. The crust is fried to a light and fluffy texture, like your grandma’s pot pie, but better, bursting with a multitude of meats and unique spices. The inside of the ham and cheese empanadas melt together in a gooey, salty blend, accompanied by the tang of onion and unique spices — all so uncontrollably addicting.
The room where customers get to relax, eat and watch three plasma televisions with channels tuned to soccer and a women’s luchador match set the tone for Latino culture. It resembles a small cafeteria filled with vibrantly -colored, mismatched furniture and a small audience that seems to be entranced with Argentinian soccer star Angel Correa as he sprints across the screen, nearly landing a goal for his team.
The sport announcer and the crowd goes wild, chanting his name — Correa! Correa! The celebration fills the small marketplace with optimistic, ambient noise.
“This marketplace has been around for 12 years, but I’ve worked here for six,” mentioned Lupe, a stout and charismatic Chicana woman tending the deli counter.
She tells me that she’s from Venezuela, and that the owner is originally from Uruguay, but most of the regulars come here to watch soccer tournaments like “La Copa America,” which is a big deal within this community of primarily Mexican and Latino people.
Lupe told me the neighborhood is “muy tranquilo” (really calm) and said that, contrary to the bad rap Santa Ana usually gets for its high crime rates, she’s never seen any such problems within the community throughout her entire time working here.
Over by the marketplace, small little islands of shelves with Central American products like mate (a Central American tea) and bottles of something called postobon (an apple-flavored soft drink), spread out across a room the size of a small classroom.
Toward the back of this section sits a butcher behind his glass display of imported raw meat, furiously shredding meats for the women making sandwiches on the opposite side.
Around the frozen food section, DIY empanada kits and packages of various fruit pulps line the shelves. In an abandoned corner out of sight, two doors with porthole windows show a sneak peek of a short little man in a white apron carefully kneading out dough for the empanadas.
As the buzz of lunchtime chatter fades away, Lupe gives a quick sigh of relief and resumes preparations for the next wave of hungry food-goers. She stops to wave goodbye to the last of her lingering customers with their styrofoam containers of to-go orders and leftovers — similar to kids headed off to school with their packed lunches from mom.
The marketplace reduces to a quiet hum of a dishwasher and a low mumble of televisions in an unattended room — one more reminder that this place is more of home than a marketplace.