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Diverse tastes of Mexico in one Roslindale store

Alejandro Rodriguez at his market, El Chavo. Right: fresh nopalitos, cactus pads that can be grilled or pressed into juice. Alejandro Rodriguez at his market, El Chavo. Right: fresh nopalitos, cactus pads that can be grilled or pressed into juice. (Photos By Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Liza Weisstuch
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2009

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There aren’t necessarily more jars and bottles of salsa at El Chavo, a Mexican market in Roslindale Square, than you’d find in your local grocery store. But the assortment is remarkably broader. It’s like visiting a tailor to order a custom-made suit and choosing from a wide array of fabrics rather than just selecting a size.

“Mexico is divided into three parts - North, Central, and South,’’ explains Alejandro Rodriguez, the store’s owner. “There are very different tastes and traditions in different regions and I want people to have a taste of their own, things from where they grew up. Drop by this modest emporium and it becomes clear that our southern neighbor is a land with culinary diversity. That’s precisely what Rodriguez, a native of Mexico City, aimed to showcase when he opened El Chavo late last year.

He moved to Roslindale from Texas seven years ago and studied business administration at community colleges. He earned money by working in restaurants, taking on roles that ranged from line cook at Cafe D in Jamaica Plain to head breakfast cook at the Eliot Hotel. He also developed a menu at the eatery at Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon. His original intention was to open a Mexican fast food restaurant, but not long after arriving, he realized there was a more vital need to be filled in the city’s culinary landscape: a shop specializing in South-of-the-border flavors for home cooks.

“Any time I’d have a party, I’d want to make Mexican food and find different exotic spices and chilis to make good dishes like I ate at home,’’ says Rodriguez. “I couldn’t find them anywhere.’’ Now, along with shelves of salsa, the entrepreneur has a refrigerator stocked with tortillas for everything from tacos to fajitas; Mexican cheeses; salted beef and spiced chorizo; and bins of fresh nopalitos, the wing-like pads of a cactus that can be grilled or pressed into juice. A freezer is loaded with ice pops in flavors like tamarind, yellow cherry, and arroz con leche (rice pudding). Sweet snacks in boxes adorned with vibrant cartoon characters beckon from the shelves and, of course, there are racks of dried chilis in all varieties. Rodriguez plans to host cooking classes.

The store is named for the eponymous character in a popular Mexican cartoon series, an orphan who’s quickly welcomed by the neighborhood in which he ends up. “I called it El Chavo because I thought the community would embrace it,’’ says Rodriguez. Recently, a family of four from Mexico living in Fall River left with five bags of groceries. Maria Cesar, the mother of the clan, was excited to find snacks she ate as a kid for her 10- and 14-year-old sons. Pancho Moreno, a Mexico City transplant who’s worked in restaurants in Boston for the last 25 years, bought six jars of flor de calabaza, zucchini flowers commonly used in Mexican fare. He prepares them with crabmeat.

Every two weeks, Rodriguez drives to New Jersey to buy directly from wholesalers; he keeps a notebook with special requests customers ask him to hunt down. “People always ask for all kinds of dried chilies and more and different salsas,’’ he says.

“The more stuff I have, the more it makes people happy.’’

El Chavo, 4254 Washington St., Roslindale, 617-323-2442.