WEST COLUMBIA — Part grocery store, part meat market and part restaurant, El Mariachi (1078 Sunset Blvd.) is a one-stop shop for everyday basics and Latin necessities. There are tons of basics in bulk here, especially tortillas, fresh or canned beans, and fresh chilis by the pound. As much fresh food as there is, there is just as many interesting snack adventures to be had. In this edition of Best Snacks, we tackle the deep end of El Mariachi’s goods to find some old and new favorites.
Dried Chili Mango
Dried fruits don’t have the most exciting reputation in the world. It’s not that dried apricots, bananas and others are bad per say, but none are chili mango. Already delicious as a fresh fruit, mango when dried somehow gets even better, adding a level of chewiness and concentrated sweetness. Chili powder rounds the sweetness out with a layer of salt and spice. Quietly the best snack around.
Tapatio Doritos and Crujitos
Started by Jose-Luis Saavedra Sr. in 1971, the hot sauce Tapatio has a tremendous history. Working two part-time jobs as he made the sauce and worked on growing the brand, Saavedra’s sauce went through several lawsuits from major companies like Con Agra and Del Monte over the name. The largest case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Jose-Luis took on tremendous debt for his company, which ultimately was able to settle on the name Tapatio and grow into one of the top hot sauce brands in the world.
As popular as sriracha and other hot sauces have become, Tapatio hasn’t quite had the same moment. These Tapatio Doritos, however, are a great start. Similar to Nacho Chees Doritos, these gets a mild pop of heat from the Tapatio seasoning. Think spicy nachos, and you get this easily crushable combination.
Chips are hugely abundant at El Mariachi from lemon and chili lime flavored Lays to queso Ruffles to specific Latin brands. One of the most delicious Latin brands we found was Crujitos. Best described as what you would get if you cross Cheetos with Fritos, these “twists” are lightly crispy chips packed full of queso flavor.
Jarritos was the king of fruity sodas before fruity sodas became cool to hand-make and bottle. Founded by Don Franciso “El Guero” Hill in 1950, he first started with a tamarind soda using extract from the fruit to create Jarrtios Tamarindo. Other flavors like Mandarin and Lemon followed soon after. Today there are over 13 flavors in the Jarrito line from the classic Tamarind to newcomers like watermelon and passion fruit.
The Guava gives the perfect balance of sweet and sour flavor that goes well with snacks and meals alike. And the subtle pink color of the guava flavor is one of the most eye-catching I’ve seen in any soft drink.
Delivered daily from the local panaderia, El Mariachi carries several pastries daily for a quick grab-and-go. Conchas are round loaves of bread with a sweet, crunchy topping that forms a distinctive shell. They are fantastic with a cup of coffee in the morning, offering a cross between bread and pastry on the go. On some days there are also jam-filled pastries, donuts and other popular Mexican baked goods.
Besides a variety of sweet pastries, there’s also a few bolillos, the bread used most often for tortas.
Pollo a la Brasa (Charcoal Chicken)
Yes, this can lean more meal than anything, but it’s also so good that you could easily buy pound after pound of pollo a la brasa and snack on it all day. A weekend tradition at many a taqueria or carnicera, grills are pulled out to the front of the store for a full day of barbecuing marinated meats. The finished items are served up in the cafe at the back of El Mariachi or packaged for sale in the meat market by the pound to go.
The charcoal chicken is a standout. Marinated in a deep chili sauce that gets enveloped in smoke on the grill, the combination of the marinade and smoky, charcoal smell is impossible to resist. Perfect on it’s own, in a tortilla or over rice, there’s just no way you can go wrong with a pound or three of this.
It’s impossible to walk through El Mariachi and ignore the sizzles and smells coming out of the kitchen at the back. The restaurant is modest and easy to miss if you aren’t looking, but well worth the stop. El Mariachi quietly serves some of the best Latin food in town, from tacos to harder to find dishes like caldo de res, a hearty beef soup.
Best of all is their selection of pupusas, the popular stuffed, griddled cake that made its way stateside from El Salvador and Honduras. For a mere $2.75 per pupusa, you can try all four varieties — chicken, bean, cheese and pork — for $11, and it’s a ton of food. The pupusas are soft, yet crispy and bursting with filling. Paired with curtido, a spicy cabbage slaw often served beside pupusas, it’s an incredible meal or snack any time of day.