Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - February 8, 2013

Quick-stop tamale shop

Convenience store finds its niche with south-of-the-border treats

by Eric Van Susteren

Roberto Luna affectionately calls the convenience store he manages on California Street and Mariposa Avenue "the little store."

The name fits, but the cramped 400-square-foot store is chock-full of items that may be difficult to find at the local liquor store: Mexican chorizo, pan dulce and freshly made tamales, which are advertised on the otherwise unassuming building by a sign that reads "Tamales all day" in large, red-painted letters.

The sign and the tamales serve as a major draw for customers, many of whom are locals who use the little store for "I-forgot" shopping, Luna said.

"The tamales are something a little unique for a little store," he said. "They're a draw because they're a little more novel."

The store offers the masa-wrapped delicacies in four varieties: pork in red salsa, chicken in green salsa, cheese and peppers, and sweet corn a traditional cornbread-like treat from El Salvador. Luna said he doesn't have a favorite.

"It depends on your mood," he said, opening the case and letting the corn-scented steam waft out. "Try the sweet corn tamales with cream and tomatillo salsa on them, even though they're slightly sweet. That's the way to go."

Originally, the Lunas bought their tamales from a vendor, but the quality began to decline and they decided to begin making them on-site at a larger store in San Jose, which is also owned by his family. Besides the tamales, each day the store sells between 400 and 500 pieces of pan dulce, a common kind of Hispanic pastry, as well as fresh produce and meats. He said these are rarities in stores his size.

The draw of savory and sweet comfort food seems to fit the store's image. It's small, quirky and has a distinct community character.

"People are used to coming in," he said. "It's nice, neighborly and convenient. We even get potential renters in the neighborhood come in and ask how it is here."

Luna's father, also named Roberto, considered buying into a 7-Eleven franchise, but he didn't like the idea of someone else controlling what the store carried while taking a cut off the top. Instead, he bought the cramped store to run himself.

When it opened, the store was a place people in the neighborhood came to speak Spanish, under his father's hawkish eye, Luna said. His father wouldn't allow kids to loiter around it, and he would admonish anyone who used swear words in the store.

Now he said the neighborhood's makeup is changing. He estimated that 85 percent of the customers were Latino when his father bought the store. Now he thinks it's probably closer to 50 percent.

Both Luna and his youngest sister met their spouses while working at the little store. At one point or another, he and all eight of his siblings have worked there. He said the family-owned-and-operated feel is a boon to a store that draws its clientele by being a community fixture.

"After working at the San Jose store for 12 or 15 years, I came back, and I'd see the same folks they'd come in with a big old smile on their faces and I'd recognize them as children I knew when I was working there before," he said.

A framed newspaper clipping from the '80s hangs above the counter. It shows Luna's father, who died five years ago, leaning into the small counter, grinning into the camera, exactly where his son stands.

"Sometimes I'll look up into the video camera, see myself there and say, 'My gosh! That's my father,'" Luna said, beaming at the yellowed clipping.

Info:

The California Street Market is located at 1595 California Street at Mariposa Avenue, in Mountain View. Call (650) 988-6706 for information.

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