by David Cecelski
Around dusk last night, when I got out of the Black River swamps, the only place I could find a hot meal within 15 or 20 miles was Tienda y Restaurante Doña Mary, a Mexican store, pool room, and café at the corner of US 210 and US 701. From the outside it looked a little seedy. The parking lot was dirt and half-flooded and the building, probably an old convenience store, was old and shabby. The café, though, turned out to be very clean and the proprietors were amiable. They were from one of the northern Mexico states, Tamaulipas or Nuevo León, I think.
While one of their relatives, an impressively-tattooed young man, told me about his experiences in bass fishing competitions, the ladies warmed up a big bowl of the weekend special, caldo de camarrón seco. It’s a shrimp soup made with dried shrimp, chiles, carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables and spices. I had gotten pretty wet in the swamps and, even after I changed clothes, I hadn’t been able to shake a nasty chill. The spicy shrimp broth warmed me right up.
On my way home, I was astonished at how Latin American that swampy corner of Bladen, Pender and Sampson counties is now. There may not be as many Latino immigrants there as in, say,Charlotte or Raleigh, but the percentage of residents who have come from Mexico and Central America is much higher—it feels Latin American.
Without leaving US 701, you can now buy fresh tortillas and pork tamales (only $5.00 for a half dozen) at Tortillería San Juan in the sleepy little town of Garland, next to the beautiful swamps along the South River. You can also get chimichangas and gorditas at La Lomita, a Mexican snack bar north of Garland, as well as weekend specials like menudo, a traditional tripe soup, and camarrónes del diablo, shrimp in a spicy red sauce.
Farther up US 701, you can also find pollo rotizados en estilo ranchero—roast chicken in a tomato-chile sauce—at Tortillería Carolina in Clinton, as well as many different kinds of Honduran and Oaxacan dishes at Taquería La Mixteca, a Mixtec diner just down the road.
The Mixtecs, by the way, are one of the largest indigenous groups in Mexico. They were one of the major civilizations ofMesoamerica in pre-Columbian times and still speak an ancient language, as well as, usually, Spanish. Much oppressed in Mexico, most, like the proprietors of Taquería La Mixteca, come from the western half of Oaxaca, though there are also Mixtec communities inPuebla and Guerrero.
Another really interesting Mexican eatery, Restaurante y Paletería La Michoacana, is just a little further north on 701. While the proprietors are already serving Mexican and Honduran main dishes, they’ll soon have something far rarer in these parts: handmadehelado—ice cream—and made-from-scratch paletas! Made out of a dizzying number of fresh, seasonal fruits mixed with either water or milk, paletas are popsicles that are popular all over Mexico, but I’ve never seen a paletería here.
The señora of this mom-and-pop business told me that her family has long specialized in making ice creamand paletas. Those treats have an historic connection with Michoacán, a state in westernMexico, and especially with a city called Tocumbo. Residents of Tocumbo spread their ice cream and popsicles across Mexicobeginning in the 1940s. I’ve heard that there are Paleterías Michoacanas in villages across the country now. It’s not a chain, though. They’re usually locally-owned, make-them-by-hand purveyors of the chilly delicacies. Their equipment and sometimes many of their ingredients, though, often still come from Tocumbo.
Soon there will be handmade Michoacán-style helado andpaletas in Clinton, too. The señora and her husband have ordered the equipment, her family in the ice cream and paleta-making business elsewhere is helping them, and in about two months they’ll bring their first paletas to US 701.