You know how it is. Day of the Dead rolls around every year and there's not a stinkbug to be found anywhere in the city. On the following Monday all your friends back home in Guerrero are heading to Taxco for Dia de Jumil, to trudge up the hill and poke under rocks and logs to collect as many jumiles as they can. It's not just a party you're missing. It's been so long since you've popped any of the cinnamon-scented, iodine-rich critters that you can feel your thyroid swelling like a balloon.
Well, amigo mio, you can put down the sea kelp tablets—because you can find as many jumiles as you want in the bottom of a bucket in a freezer case in the rear of a little corner store on South Pulaski.
Cremeria La Ordeña in the West Elsdon neighborhood is not a specialist in edible insects (though in addition to stinkbugs they also carry chapulines, the lime-and-salt-seasoned toasted grasshoppers that the Oaxaqueños are nuts about). When it opened early last year it was primarily all about dairy products: Mexican cheeses and cremas, both imported and domestic. Owners Nicolas Aguado and Luciano Dominguez opened after a year of selling their stuff at the Ashland Swap-O Rama and the 7 Mile Fair flea market in Caledonia, Wisconsin, while they waited for their city permits and licenses (they still sell at those places too).
Aguado and Dominguez work for Mi Costeñita, the wholesale importer of Mexican chiles, spices, candies, and snacks, whose vivid orange and red packaging can be spotted in nearly every supermercado in town. Dominguez, whose brother owns the company, is a manager, and Alguado, his brother-in-law, is a salesman. So when customers from the neighborhood, which is heavily populated by expats from the southwestern state of Guerrero, began visiting the store and requesting a younger version of the dry, chile-rubbed queso xincho they were selling, it was no problem to find a source and bring it in.
They fully expected La Ordeña, with its limited selection of products, would be a part-time sideline to their regular jobs. "We were thinking around here [the customers] would all be from Guerrero," Aguado says. "They buy a lot of xincho cheese. When we opened we don't know what to put in. It was the beans and the creams."
But then people started coming in asking for different moles. La Ordeña already carried three varieties of the dense, complex, spicy, chile-based sauce pastes that often incorporate dozens of ingredients like chocolate, fruit, bread, nuts, and spices. But soon Alguado and Dominguez were taking requests for mole almendrado (a granulated, spicy, rust-colored variety made with almonds), or mole verde (a nutty-tasting olive drab paste from Guerrero made with green pumpkin seeds), or Oaxaca's famous Stygian-colored mole negro (made with four varieties of dried chiles).
These days the store carries eight varieties imported from various Mexican states. And they aren't the mass-produced, dead-tasting, jarred moles you find in the supermercados. They're displayed on top of the deli counter in large plastic covered bowls and measured out by weight.
Aguado likes to cook—he used to work for the catering operation at Spago. But even he isn't clued in to the differences among all of the moles. He offers small plastic tasting spoons for customers who aren't sure what they want.
It's a stunning array, but La Ordeña remains primarily a cremeria, and the partners have cultivated an unmatched selection of dairy products. Apart from the two xinchos, there's queso menonita from Durango (like a stronger chihuahua cheese that's named for the Mennonite settlers that first introduced it to northern Mexico), crumbly cotija from Michoacan, goat milk queso de cabra from Greece, three varieties of crema from California, spreadable cremosito from Wisconsin, ricotta-like requeson (salted and unsalted), the strained yogurt known as jocoque, stringy Oaxacan cheese made in Kentucky that manager Elizabeth Arellano (who is also Aguado and Dominguez's niece) says rivals the good stuff from the southwestern state, and nata, the luscious cream skimmed from the top of boiling milk. It's made by an Arabic guy on the north side and meant to be spread on sweet bread from the panaderia.
There's also three flavors of cajeta, the sweet, viscous goat and cow's milk caramel, including a mildly alcoholic-tasting version with walnuts, and another cooked a little longer to impart a subtle burnt flavor.
The partners also make their own chorizo, both a fresh version and the dryer longaniza, as well as short links in the style of Toluca. They also crafted a few batches of that city's more famous chorizo verde, but that didn't sell well. On the other hand, the fatty coins of moronga blood sausage, which they outsource, fly out the door, according to Arellano.
For such a tight space the store is crammed with unusual products rarely seen anywhere else in town, including 13 varieties of dried beans, dried guaje seeds (great with eggs), sweet-and-sour frozen plums (eggs again), packets of large, thin tlayudas for making what the gringos call "Oaxacan pizza," and large bulk bins full of various granolas and seasoned snacking seeds from a collection of different gourds. On the deli case there's a jar of a dried guamuchiles, the mildly sweet fruit of a drought-resistant tree that taste like chewy coconut candies, and under that a tray full of fat candied sweet potatoes.
Aguado, Dominguez, and Arellano are scouting locations on the north side for a second store. (Aguado isn't sure how word got around that he and his partner were willing to spend the time and expense to bring in some of the more obscure regional specialties in the Mexican pantry; maybe it's the delivery truck with the giant fiberglass cow on the bed). If Chicagoans originating from all over Mexico will travel to a largely Guerrerense neighborhood on the southwest side, who says they won't travel to Albany Park?
"In Mexico all this is very cheap," he says. "But to bring it here is expensive."
But it's still a lot cheaper than a stinkbug run to Taxco.