What do you buy (and cook with) at the Mexican grocery store?

I thought Cafe Society for recipes, but I may have thought wrong, I dunno.

Yesterday, after we’d been working on cleaning my boyfriend’s unairconditioned house for a few hours (did I mention it got up to 97 yesterday? When we just got too hot to take it anymore we went outside to cool off) we took a field trip to this Mexican grocery store that I’d heard was particularly good. As it so happens, man do Mexican people know a lot about cooling off! Between the banana sodas and the rice ice cream bars, we’ve found a new hot day destination. I’d never actually been in a Mexican grocery store - Chinese and Korean, yes, but I’d never quite had the nerve to try the Mexican sort - they just seem more insular and less English-speaking, and I didn’t have anything specific I was looking for.

Anyway, the reason I went was to pick up some Mexican chocolate and some of those cones of sugar to try making a more authentic champurrado, and to get a good tortilla press and try my hand at making my own. The champurrado was awesome, by the way - way better than with baker’s chocolate and brown sugar. Also, two rice ice cream bars, sodas, chocolate, sugar cone things, one of those wooden whisk things, and a cast iron tortilla press cost me a whole 20 bucks. It was like a whole freaking department store - you can get your tortilla press, your quinceanera dress, a bunch of CDs, scary candy, and a taco all in the same place!

So, what do I get next time? I’ve got one of Rick Bayless’ authentic Mexican cookbooks, but I’ve never made a single thing out of it. (I’ve got lots of cookbooks like that - it’s sort of my favorite vice. I’m a food fantasizer.) What’s the best deal there? (Dried chiles is my guess - I think I’d need to take a spotting guide, though, as the people working there spoke practically no English and I’m not exactly a chile expert. There weren’t many fresh veggies at all, though - mostly tomatillos.) What’s way better with the “real thing” when it comes to ingredients? Suggest some really good (yet simple!) authentic stuff to make out of what they got! What do you just have to go out of your way to get there?

There’s different sized stores around. Try to find a larger one and poke around. I’ve always found the staff and customers very, very friendly, even if the languages isn’t quite there. The one’s around here (Chicago’s North side) often have ok produce at great prices.

There’s often a great variety of cheese you can start experimenting with.
Many of the grocery stores around here offer hot food, especially on weekends.
Try to find some made in-store chorizo. Head and shoulders above the plastic-tubed mass market stuff.
The deli section may have some ceveche. I’ve had good luck.
Cheap limes.
Often the meat counter has some treats. Look for thin cut and seasoned skirt steak (arrachera). Toss it on the grill for a couple minutes, squeeze some lime juice and you’re south of the border.
Some stores might make mole in house. Thin it with some chicken broth and you’ve got a great sauce.
I’ve tried and failed a half dozen times to make salsa verde that is even 10% as good as the stuff I get for 99 cents a pint at the groceria.

Well, this one’s the biggest one around and it isn’t exactly huge - if there’s a meat counter, it isn’t in with the rest of the groceries (although there is a restaurant section we didn’t enter).

Should have priced the limes - I bet they were a good deal.