I’m thrilled that my best friend recently moved to Chester County not only because she’s now just a short drive away, but also because it gives me a reason to explore the foodie goodness in a new area of Chester County. In the 8 years that I’ve lived in West Chester I haven’t had much reason to head into Southern Chester County other than occasional stops for some “Dangerously Delicious Pies” at the Octoraro Hotel in Oxford. So, since her move to Avondale, I have had lots of fun exploring the nooks and crannies in her backyard – my most recent discovery is just in time for Cinco de Mayo! Here’s how it went down.
I was heading down Baltimore Pike from Kennett to Avondale when I realized I was dangerously low on gas, so I pulled into a Valero gas station to fill up. The credit card machine at the pump was out of order so I ran inside to pay. Inside was the same problem: credit machine down and out. So, I felt my pockets for cash. As I pulled the wrinkled ten-dollar bill from my pocket, I caught a small sign written in Spanish. All I could make out was “Tacos, Tortas…” and then I saw “al pastor,”which I recognized to be one of my favorite things in the world…pork with pineapple. I looked at my money and then asked the very sweet man behind the counter, “Do you sell food here?”
“Yes, we do.” He beamed and pointed to the small counter and kitchen area where I saw women cooking away.”…and it’s delicious!” he added. With that, I told him I wanted $5 in gas and I spent the other $5 on food. I could get gasoline at the next spot, but I couldn’t miss out on a food find.
After a return visit, I learned that this charismatic man’s name is Oscar Garcias and he is the recent owner of the Valero property. Although there are no signs indicating the existence of this market/restaurant (though he plans to put them up soon), the name is El Mercadito, which translates to “The Little Market.” El Mercadito is run by Oscar and his wife. A contractor by trade, Oscar routinely drove by the location; after stopping in and noticing it seemed a bit neglected, he inquired about purchasing the space. The previous owners seemed to have lost their motivation to focus on the to-go food portion of the property and Oscar thought he could provide a better experience for customers. With the friendly atmosphere, fast service and fresh, quality offerings, he certainly has.
Oscar caters to those in the local farming industry by opening his doors at 4 AM every day and doesn’t close until 8 PM.
“Most of the rush comes at 4 AM, 9 AM and then at Noon. The 9am hour is like a lunchbreak, so we get a lot of farmers and workers stopping by to fill up on food.”
There is no seating yet, but that’s in the plans for the near future, along with a walk-up window for shaved ice. For now, it’s an unassuming gas station on the outside with a lot of incredible food choices on the inside. The Spanish-speaking community has embraced El Mercadito’s lovingly made food based on recipes passed down through the generations in Oscar’s family. His experience working in restaurnts, including a French restaurant in Pittsburgh, fueled his passion for providing good food.
“My mother helped me develop a strong sense of what the food should taste like, and then I learned from the people around me to make it even better.”
Right now you’ll see Oscar doing mostly doing “quality control” of the food, while he focuses on bigger-picture visions for the market. But, he assured me that the food is always made with their special seasoning and own recipes. They even make their own corn tortillas and get their meat and vegetables from local grocers.
After gathering his sweet family – his wife and their four young children – for a picture in front of his new sign, we laughed about our chance meeting weeks prior, all because of a credit card machine that didn’t work (Thanks goodness for that!). So, be sure to stop in and try some of El Mercadito’s offerings for yourself. They will have food specials for Cinco de Mayo, but here are a few of my picks to try anytime:
Guaraches: a thick, oval-shaped, corn tortilla made in-house (think Mexican pita) and topped with meat, cheese, lettuce, beans and all the fixings
Sopes: a variation of the Guarches, but smaller and piled with marinated sirloin, beans, tomato, cheese, avocado and sour cream
Chile relleno: white-cheese-stuffed Anaheim or poblano green pepper fried in egg batter and smothered in a tomato sauce
Torta Cubana: inspired by the popular Cuban sandwich, this big guy packs a punch with proteins like ham, Mexican steak (even a sliced hot dog!), white cheese, fried egg that equate this sandwich to about 5 meals in one (but is only $6.50)!El Mercadito (Inside the Valero Gas Station) 72 Baltimore Pike Avondale, PA 19311 610-268-2613
Get Your Cinco On!
Did you know that the United States celebrates Cinco de Mayo more than Mexico? We can be glad for that because, not only is it a great way to celebrate spring, it’s a great excuse to spice things up with a healthy dose of the Mexican culture. Chester County is chock full of places to get some fantastic Mexican cuisine.
For authentic, delicious Mexican food in Phoenixville, try Los Mariachis Mexican Restaurant located in a bright-yellow building at 201 Gay St., Phoenixville. They seat up to 60 people, so bring your favorite celebratory alcolol (it’s a BYOB) and save your spot early! This spot has all the basics and much more. Try the $2 tacos with traditional fixins’ (cilantro and chopped onion) or prepared “tex-mex” with lettuce, tomato and sour cream. Tostadas are $3. Hungry and want to try a variety? Get the Cominaciode Tex-Mex platter for $15 and choose 3 of the following: quesadilla, chile relleno, 2 soft taquitos, 2 enchiladas, 2 tamales, 1 tex-mex taco, 1 chalupa or 1 tostada. Oh – and everything is made to order. Ole!
On Baltimore Pike from Kennett to Avondale you’ll see many other spots to stop and try some authentic Mexican cuisine. Keep your eyes peeled for a Roasted Corn stand at a Mexican grocer where the corn is steamed, covered in a cream sauce, rolled in cheese and lightly sprinkled with cayenne pepper- said to be like a salty and savory fireball with a good heat that keeps you coming back for more. You can also get fresh mangoes, peeled, covered in freshly squeezed lime juice and topped with cayenne pepper and salt. All served on a stick for sticky-free eating.
I may be biased because it’s the closest to where I live, but one of my go-tos is Don Gabriel Restaurant at 611 W Strasburg Road, West Chester (610) 431-3212. It’s part restaurant and part market and has fresh, tasty and affordable authentic Mexican cuisine with a simple seating area. You cannot go wrong with any flavor of tacos for $2.50, although my personal favorite is the el pastor taco (pork and pineapple) with a little of the special green sauce (always on the table) and some guacamole. Want to try a Mexican sandwich? Tortas are $5.50, come with any of the fillings you’d get in a taco and are served on sweet, soft bread with mayo, lettuce, tomato, onions, hot peppers and avocado. Yum.
Closer to Downingtown? A must-visit spot is Rincon Tarasco 2 Wallace Ave, Downingtown 610-518-3210. Standouts are the Cochineal Pibil taco, a $2.00 slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan. Preparation of traditional cochinita or puerco pibil involves marinating the meat in citrus juice, coloring it with annatto seed and roasting the meat while it is wrapped in a banana leaf. It takes 10 hours to make and it is made from scratch. Another favorite of mine is the ceviche, made with talapia, lime juice, tomato and a big pinch of an island breeze. Each bite tasted like a vacation in my mouth. For a real treat, order the molcajete, which is served in a traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle tool made out of volcanic rock. It’s made to order and is filled with mashed ingredients that cook in the hot stone and make a tasty sauce. Then Mexican sausage, chicken, pork, asada steak and a Mexican grilled cheese is added and served in the sizzling rock. Owner Alberto says it’s easily 3 pounds of meat.
For a really sweet way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, you’ve gotta go to La Michoacana Ice Cream located at 231 E State St., Kennett Square (610) 444-2996. La Michoacana has more than 50 flavors of authentic Mexican ice cream and sorbet. With amazing flavors like corn, rice pudding, avocado and chili made with real-deal ingredients, you can’t be bored. Kids will love to eat their veggies if it’s ice cream.