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Livin' La Vida Charlotte 

Bienvenidos to a world of Latino foods

Nationwide, salsa is now more popular than ketchup. The mojito is one of the most popular cocktails in Charlotte. And ceviches and moles are showing up on upscale New American menus around town. Charlotte, the sleepy banking town that fun forgot, is morphing into a culturally diverse city. Need some epazote, an Aztec herb? You can buy the plant at Home Depot or the cut herb at several of our area farmers' markets.

Latino food has exploded upon the local scene, with innumerable grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, and, of course, restaurants showing up in the past decade or so. How much of it will be incorporated into mainstream Charlotte's daily menus? Into our home cooking? A century ago, putting lasagna or ravioli on the dinner menu would have happened only in Italian neighborhoods. Times change. Now what could be more American than pizza?

How will the food Charlotteans eat change as the Latino community expands? Hilda H. Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia, The Spanish-Language Newspaper, responded, "I think the food will have more flavor, more color, more variety. Latino food is spicier, but not necessarily hot. It has a richer flavor as we love to mix ingredients such as herbs, red or green peppers, onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes, wine, which used in the right amount and cooked at the right heat adds a gourmet style flavor to an otherwise simple meal.

"I see all of us (collectively) in Charlotte enjoying more foods of Latino origin every day: plantains, tamales, corn tortillas filled with cheese, meat, chicken, yellow rice mixed with shrimps, scallops, mussels or any other types of seafood on a rich red pepper, garlic and onions sauce, pasta with mushrooms sauce, beans & rice."

In 2000, almost 18 percent of Charlotteans spoke a language at home other than English, according to the US Census. Roughly 40,000 Charlotteans (or 12.5 percent) were "Hispanic." Many in the Latino community believe the census count was considerably lower than the actual number of Latinos living in Charlotte.

"It's impossible to gauge," said Armando Reyes, owner of Los Reyes 2, a Latino grocery store off Independence Boulevard and Village Lake Drive. "Most think the number is around 100,000. But it's hard to say."

When Los Reyes 2 opened in March 2003, business began slowly. Since then Reyes said his business has increased "ten times over," a dream come true for any entrepreneur.

But this is what Reyes expected when he came to Charlotte since he had witnessed a similar dramatic growth in the Latino community in Chicago, the city his native Mexican father had immigrated to 35 years ago, and the city in which he was born.

Armando Reyes decided to come to Charlotte because an uncle saw Charlotte's Latino community blossoming and Reyes wanted to establish a business of his own.

"We wanted to have our store located on a main artery and we noticed there were already a few smaller stores that catered to the Latino population around here. We knew this place was right."

His customers are 80 percent Mexican and the rest is a mix of Colombians, Brazilians (Reyes is trying to learn Portuguese), Venezuelans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans. His business is customer-driven. If a customer wants an item, Reyes finds a distributor. "Our goal is to have the most popular products," he said.

But Reyes also knows he needs to change in order to keep his business growing. Already the large grocery store chains, such as Bi-lo and Wal-Mart, are beginning to capture the Latino market by selling more Latino brand canned goods and produce. To compensate, Reyes is renovating his shop to include a butcher shop and a take out/hot food area.

"In our business, meat will constitute about 60 percent of sales. Produce is next in importance. Groceries are next." His butcher (technically meat cutting) shop will draw customers because the Latino community prefers for meat to be cut to order in front of them.

Ironically this is the opposite direction Charlotte's major supermarkets chains have taken. During the past five years, area chain stores have eliminated meat cutting and grinding in their stores. They now offer only pre-packaged meat which is ground or cut offsite.

Reyes said, "My father grew up a butcher in Mexico. They go through a lot of training. They've been in the trade for five or six years before they can do everything. These butchers are artisans. Fresh meat is what the people had back home and what they want here."

That's why Celestino Hernandez opened the first Mexican butcher shop in town. The Carniceria La Mexicana Butcher Shop on Central Avenue opened in 1997. Hernandez commented, "People, especially restaurateurs, came to me looking for thinly cut meat." Hernandez offers Mexican cuts of steak and pork, as well as chicken, chorizo sausage, offal, cheese, cold cuts, fish and prawns.

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