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Northgate González Market Has Become a Whole New Scene in Orange County



Northgate González Market Has Become a Whole New Scene in Orange County
Northgate González Market Has Become a Whole New Scene in Orange County

On a summer weekend, mid-heat wave, the promising smell of clean fryer oil drifted through a parking lot in Costa Mesa, Calif. Inside Mercado González, children were on tiptoes, squeaking hands against the glass at El Moro, watching cooks pipe and fry swirls of dough to a precise golden brown, then snip the coils into curved batons and roll them in cinnamon sugar. It was an efficient and beautiful routine.

Good churros aren’t hard to find, but El Moro is both a chain and an institution, and before the mercado opened last fall, the only place you could try its famously long, thin, thoroughly crisp-edged versions was in Mexico. The thrill is still fresh. A group of teens in front of me, dazzled by a promo video for the churro ice-cream sandwich, workshopped their orders out loud while the line shuffled along.

Northgate González Market is one of the largest Mexican supermarket chains in the country — family-owned, with 43 locations across Southern California and more than $1 billion in annual revenue. But when the company unveiled its splashy new project last year, it didn’t lean toward a slick imitation of Erewhon or Whole Foods Market.

Instead, Northgate planned a 70,000-square-foot, open-plan, emphatically Mexican mercado with a bakery, butcher, tortilleria and a strategic lineup of food vendors with regional Mexican specialties, all bundled together under one roof.

The lineup is strategic, with several multigenerational Mexican businesses, including El Moro, still run by the Iriarte family, along with Los Güichos and Chiva Torta, an Orange County food truck that beams with pride for Guadalajara.

The tortas ahogadas here are fat and glorious, the crisp, salty bread soaked through with a lip-tingling salsa de tomate, but structured enough to hold in a soft paunch of beans and carnitas. On tables, you can see the sandwiches in various states of being — diners eating them with their hands, and, after the sandwich has vanished, using a spoon to drink the stewy salsa dotted with crisp bits of carnitas and pickled onion.

Teresa Reynoso de González and Miguel González Jimenez, a married couple from Jalisco, opened the first Northgate Market in 1980, after a real estate agent from their hometown pointed them toward a 2,000-square-foot storefront in Anaheim.

They left the business to their 13 children, who worked to broaden the appeal to second- and third-generation immigrants. Joshua González, a grandson of the founders and the general manager of the mercado, is one of 34 family members who runs the business now.

He said the supermarket wasn’t strategic initially, but the steady growth of Northgate into a billion-dollar business ran parallel to a boom in immigration from Mexico, at a time when most American supermarkets still considered tortillas a niche product, and culturally specific grocery stores hadn’t started to shape the country’s tastes.

Mercado González has created a destination for the Orange County Latino community, though it draws a huge, multicultural crowd looking for extravagant Sinaloan sushi and thick knots of Oaxacan string cheese.

The mercado is loud and busy, with various lines to navigate. It may be frustrating if you’re too hungry when you get there. Online, people will ask each other the best time to go, but there isn’t a universal answer for this. If you want to hear live marimba and mariachi, it’s later in the afternoon and later in the week. If you want to enroll your kid in a free cooking class, it’s going to be a Saturday during the day. If you want to avoid the crowds completely — why?

On my most recent visit, I was on a mission to get some grocery shopping done, and the pleasure of the most ordinary, sometimes even lonely task took me by surprise. I was constantly distracted from my list — ooh, are those fresh green chickpeas! Wiggling gelatinas! What was I even here for again, and why wasn’t it that gleaming copper pot the size of a shopping cart?

I ripped pieces of warm tortilla for my baby, who nibbled them in her stroller while I picked up some carnitas and salsas to take home. The cook, moments earlier in goggles and gloves, frying the meat in a vat of lard, carefully picked out some pieces for me, searching for the big, tender hunks in the back, shimmering with fat. This one? He looked at me with raised eyebrows to confirm it was the right choice, and I agreed.

Two women with perfectly applied faux freckles leaned next to the Los Güichos stall, ordering from their phones; a teenager lost patience with her annoying younger siblings in the candy aisle; a couple in their 80s, mobility devices set neatly beside them, feasted on mariscos. Suits gathered at the bar next to the clutter of open seating, while friends sucked on giant juices and split piles of shrimp sitting by the windows of the community kitchen.

My baby, meanwhile, screeched like a pterodactyl every minute or so to indicate that she was excited for more tortilla. But as we squeezed past diners with their tacos and sandwiches, I didn’t feel like we were a nuisance to anyone, the way I would at a quiet, sit-down restaurant. The mercado was loud and busy in a way that accommodated and welcomed us: The crowd provided its own unquestionable kind of hospitality, and I was happy to be in it.

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