Inca Kola is a soda that is popular in Peru. I don’t remember liking it–it’s a sugary sweet concoction whose color can only be described as anti-freeze yellow, with a name appropriated from an indigenous population solely to sell sodas. But I wanted to find a bottle to show my kids.
So I stopped at The Tortilla Factory in Fredericksburg. You’ve probably driven past this place hundreds of time, but didn’t notice it. That’s because it is very tiny and there is no name on the storefront. Tucked between a locksmith and shoe repair shop next to a laundromat, it is about as large as a walk-in closet in a modern Hill Country home, but it is stocked full of goodies you only can find in Central America.
Jorge Sanchez opened it three years ago.
“I didn’t have any experience, but I always liked food and my mom cooked very well, so I decided I wanted to do it,” Sanchez explained. “I saw it as an opportunity as nobody had a tortilla factory in Fredericksburg, and there is a large Latino population.”
While Latinos and non-Latinos alike can’t resist the aroma and flavor of fresh, homemade corn tortillas coming off the press, his store also serves hearty sandwiches and carries a canasta of food items much sought after by relocated Central Americans. The list includes queso fresco (fresh, moist, white Mexican cheese); nopales (cactus stems); chicharrones (seasoned pork skins); shaved ice; chili powder; fruit cups with jicama, cucumbers, chile, and lime; chocolates, dried hibiscus (used as a tea good for the kidneys), and sodas made with sugar cane instead of corn syrup. Alas, no Inca Kola.
“Our most popular drink is Coca Cola in glass bottles,” he explained. “Like our candies, it is made with sugar cane that gives it a different flavor.”
While I was struggling with my college Spanish to chronicle the inventory, Maria–a native of Guanajauto who works as a phlebotomist–stopped in to pick up supplies.
“I still cook traditional Mexican dishes, and we were excited when we found out about this store,” she said. “There is a lot of stuff here that you would have to drive to San Antonio to get.”
Several people told me to check out La Tapatia Mexican Groceries in Kerrville. Unlike the Tortilla Factory’s cozy tienda, La Tapatia felt like stepping into a mercado in a plaza in Lima. In addition to the usual fare, this shop boasts a bakery, meat counter, and a back room filled with serapes, sombreros, Mexican dresses, piñatas, and leather boots.
“Be sure to mention the boots,” said owner Geraldo Angel Melendez. “They come straight from Mexico and we have competitive prices, especially on our work boots.”
They also have a meat counter stocked with chicharrones, chorizo, and carne de res, as well as a complete bakery, serving up pan, conchas (Mexican sweet bread), churros, and Yo-Yos–two pieces of bread held together with strawberry jelly in the middle, then covered in butter and sugar.
“I try to keep a little bit of everything that I can,” Angel said. “I love when people come in they tell me they feel they are in Mexico.”
His baked goods are so popular, Angel peddles it around the neighborhood.
“People come out of their houses and buy our bread,” he said. “Just like the ice cream truck.”
While these stores have a solid Latino following, a number of Anglos make up the customer base, as many as 40%, according to Sanchez. They tend to come for the spices, fresh tortillas, and Mexican vanilla.
Ethnic background doesn’t matter to Angel, who maintains that running a Mexican grocery is no different from any other business.
“We are a family run business, and we always try to make people feel like they are at home,” he said. “We try to make everybody happy, especially people who have never seen our stuff. One of our many goals is trying to make our customers happy. For immigrants and Anglos alike, we try to make them feel they have been to a little part of Mexico.”
Footnote: I finally found my Inca Kola at Las Americas Latin Market in San Antonio. My memory was good: I still don’t like it.
The Tortilla Factory is located at 517 So. Adams Street, Fredericksburg TX.
La Tapatia Mexican Groceries is located at 208 Cully Drive, Kerrville TX.