You will also appreciate the old-fashioned meat market with free-range chicken and Harris Ranch steaks, produce that is often superior to regular supermarket fare, and reasonable prices.
Best of all, you can combine shopping and lunch. There's an attractive taqueria where a tasty "super-taco" will set you back $2.98. The tacos are made with white corn tortillas; your choice of pork, beef, chicken, tongue or goat meat; and refried or whole pinto beans. They're garnished with pico de gallo relish, Mexican cheese, guacamole and sour cream.
The bright and cheerful taqueria also offers burritos, tortas, quesadillas, tamales, tostadas, enchiladas and more. Menudo, the famous spicy tripe soup touted as a hangover cure, is served every Saturday and Sunday. The taqueria is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Listening to customers
Chavez Market meets the needs of the largely Latino community of North Fair Oaks to the north and east, but it also caters to its nearby Atherton and Menlo Park customers to the south and west.
"We listen to our customers and try to give them what they want," says Humberto Chavez, general manager of the six Chavez Market locations. His father, David Chavez, who opened his first store in Redwood City more than two decades ago, is himself an Atherton resident. "He's in the store every day since he lives just down the street," says his son.
Father and son say the store's "old-fashioned meat market" draws customers from both worlds. Tripe, beef heart and tongue, chicken feet and chicharrones (pork cracklings) share space with Harris Ranch steaks, several kinds of shrimp, salmon and tilapia.
The counter also features fresh salsa, ceviche, queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese) and guacamole — traditional and home-style. "The home-style is Dad's recipe," says Humberto.
Chavez Market opened on Fifth Avenue last year in space formerly occupied by Key Market. Day laborers hanging around the property, reportedly frightening away customers, were said to be partly to blame for Key Market's closing. Laborers still gather in the neighborhood, but steer clear of the market.
"Thanks to our security guards and the sheriff's department, we don't have a problem," says Humberto. "I also think they respect the fact my dad is always on the premises and that the store is Mexican-owned."
David Chavez, a Mexican immigrant originally from the state of Michoacan, opened his first store, then known as Chavez Meat Market, in Redwood City in 1984. He wanted to offer traditional Mexican products that the Mexican community of Redwood City couldn't find in American-style grocery stores. The original market also offered fresh cuts of meat, traditional groceries and home-style Mexican food in its taqueria.
He opened his second store in 1993 in the heart of the Mexican community in Redwood City known as "Little Aguililla." There are now six Chavez Markets. The largest opened in 2005 in San Jose. It boasts its own tortilla factory. White corn tortillas, still warm, are delivered to each of the markets every day.
Tortillas occupy an entire department at the Fifth Avenue store. Stacks of up to 90 tortillas per package are available under the Chavez label. There are also smaller packages and house brand tortilla chips.
"Pan dulce," or Mexican sweet bread, has its own display space. Colorful sweets, often iced with bright pink frosting, include conchas, orejas, novias, tortugas, el panque, and many others. All the baked goods are prepared in Redwood City. You can also special order custom-made cakes.
The small bread display includes several kinds of white toasted bread, very crispy, like melba toast. This is eaten for breakfast with jam or jelly, says David Chavez.
Walking through the market with Humberto and David Chavez gives a glimpse into another food culture. When asked about the many kinds of soft drinks, which come in a rainbow of colors, Humberto said they were mainly sold to taqueria customers. Along with "the real thing," there were many fruit drinks, including an interesting-sounding coconut water.
Clearing up the Clamato mystery
Clamato is a combination of clam and tomato juice, often used in making Bloody Marys. It usually takes up very little space on supermarket shelves. Why such a big display at Chavez?
"You mix it with beer," says Humberto. It's a popular drink, as well as a touted cure for a hangover. Budweiser even has a ready mix product, Chelada, combining Bud Lite with Clamato.
Chavez Market has a Central and South American section featuring the foods of El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. One interesting item is a jar of a fruit punch combination, including cherries, guava, sugar cane and cinnamon.
Asked about an extensive display of spices across from the produce department, Humberto said the store stocks eight different kinds of chiles in all sizes of packages. Seasonings also include tamarind pods, dried hibiscus flowers, bundles of stick cinnamon, and piloncillo (cones of brown sugar).
Dona Remedios teas claim to be good for just about anything that ails you. There are special teas for flu, stress, fever, coughs, even PMS.
The season for stone fruit is past, but this summer the peaches, plums, and nectarines I bought at Chavez actually tasted like real fruit. Another summer favorite was their frozen fruit bars with all sorts of interesting flavors and, sometimes, real fruit. My favorite was pina colada.
Chavez Market is big, bright and air-conditioned. And you need to drive only a few yards north of the (Atherton) border for an authentic taste of Mexico.