San Francisco has the Mission District and Oakland boasts International Boulevard. In Berkeley, when it comes to Mexican grocery goods, Mi Tierra Foods is the go-to place for fresh tamales, both powdered and fresh masa, and multi-colored pinatas.
Ambrocio Hernandez, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, manages his cousin’s Latin American specialty store on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley’s International Marketplace area.
Mi Tierra is a no-frills kind of shop, and, like this town itself, an eclectic mix of eats from Central and South America, locavore food products like Cafe Fanny granola, Bette’s Ocean Diner pancake mix, and Bread Workshop breads — and inexplicable items such as canned Spam, Heinz 57 Sauce, and Nutella.
You’ll also find baked goods from the on-site bakery; popular picks include pan dulce (sweet rolls), bolillos (savory, baguette-like bread), and conchas (sweet, yeasted buns).
Serious carnivores sing the praises — and prices — of the store’s meat counter.
The produce section boasts barrels of corn husks for tamales, an array of dried red chilies, and earthy brown tamarind pods for soups, condiments, and sweets.
Hernandez, 29, who works six days a week, lives near the store. We caught up last weekend by the deli counter.
What are some of the more popular food items you sell?
Inca Kola, it’s a lemon-verbena flavored Peruvian soft drink. That’s maybe our top seller. Along with Guarana, a soda from Brazil. La Saltena frozen empananda pastry is another good seller. And chilies, cilantro, garlic, avocados, limes, and tomatoes — all the ingredients to make salsa.
What’s good about managing a grocery store?
The food, the customers, and the employees. I love to eat. The people who shop here are a diverse group of people who also love food. And all the employees — about 20 or so — speak Spanish. Almost all of them come from Mexico. So there’s a great community here. It’s like family.
What’s challenging about running a business in Berkeley?
The locos. We have one woman who comes in every day. Mostly she’s fine. Sometimes she’s a bit violent, she’ll start pushing customers, and we have to ask her to leave. But she always comes back the next day. She’s mellow right now.
What’s the best part of your job?
Customer relations. I like helping people find what they want. I speak Spanish and English. Many of our customers are native Spanish speakers. Some customers like to speak Spanish when they come to the store. We know who prefers us to talk with them in Spanish. We get a lot of white people on the weekends, mostly, who want to practice their Spanish. I’m fine with that.
Where do you like to go to eat Mexican food?
Hayward, where my sister lives. You find all kinds of authentic and affordable Mexican food there. Traditional dishes like mole, pozole, and tamales.
Update 07.03.10: Mi Tierra is at 2082 San Pablo Avenue (between University and Addison).
Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.
If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to email@example.com or leave a comment here.
To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.