Customers relieved that fire didn’t stop Mi Tienda in South Houston

July 27, 2017 GMT

It’s not often you hear the traditional sound of Mexican singer Pedro Infante coming from grocery store speakers, and authentic Mexican menudo or Latin American peppers can’t be found just anywhere, but at Mi Tienda, tradición and authentico are trademarks.

Since opening more than a decade ago, the H-E-B-owned store has been like a little taste of Latin America on the corner, providing South Houston and Pasadena residents with its own version of a mercado - a Hispanic market.

On a recent Friday night, business temporarily stopped when a fire sent some customers out the door. According to South Houston Fire Marshal Charles Sluder, an air-conditioning unit outside the store sparked the blaze, which was extinguished quickly. No injuries were reported and only minor damage to an outside stall near the entrance.

Mi Tienda barely skipped a beat, closing that Saturday but re-opening Sunday at 9 a.m., busy and noisy as ever, with music ranging from salsa and Norteño blaring, and the aroma of sweet and salty goods from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Columbia greeting customers as they enter.

The public’s response to the fire on social media and customers’ inquiries gave the store’s manager, Manuel Colunga, perspective of how deeply Mi Tienda has become rooted in the community.

“I was talking to the assistant chief of the (South Houston Volunteer Fire Department), and when he got the message that there was a fire at Mi Tienda, it was like, ‘We’re not going to lose our store.’ That made me realize that we’ve built a bond with the community,” he said.

On Twitter and Facebook, people were asking where they were going to buy their bread, pollos (fire-grilled chicken) and homemade corn tortillas, Colunga said.

That’s been the story of Mi Tienda in its first decade in the Houston area market, waving its traditional flags to an American consumer as the only major grocery chain of its kind in the United States - the closest thing to a traditional mercado after San Antonio’s own historic market place.

According to Colunga, it has been an experiment that has exceeded all expectations at its two locations: at U.S. 59 and Little York in Houston, and in the South Houston, which opened first in 2006.

“We’ve become part of that community,” Colunga said.

Located at 1630 Spencer Highway on the corner of Shaver Street near the border of Pasadena and South Houston, the 63,000-square-foot store is claimed by both cities, but for the regulars, it’s just home.

“Our goal was to give our customers the true, authentic experience of a traditional Mexican store, to feel the hospitality, the smell the authentic food and the bread we make every day,” Colunga said.

He takes special pride in the store’s corn handmade tortillas, made like your grandmother would in her kitchen, he said.

“We get the whole kernel, cook it, grind it, mix it, and then make it,” he said. “You can get a packaged mix, but it’s not the same - it’s like making a homemade pie.”

The grocery’s treasure trove of Latin American food includes items such as mounds of dried peppers, candies, nopales, hibiscus, jicama, cabrito and whole hogs.

“You just don’t find those things in other places,” Colunga said.

Dickinson resident Edilberta Flores comes with her grandchildren and daughter-in-law for the peppers, chilies, meats and spices she uses for her menudo and mole. The Acapulco, Guerrero native calls Mi Tienda “puro México” (all Mexico).

“She likes all the different things you can get here that you can’t find at other grocery stores,” said daughter-in-law, Linda Flores. “It reminds her of home.”

Sam Kamal, a La Porte resident, comes for the aguas frescas, drinks flavored with fresh fruit or vegetables.

His own concoction - beets, celery and carrots or sometimes just fruits - hits the spot every morning.

“You can’t find this anywhere else, and it’s better than food to me!” he said.

True to the store’s pride in its various cultural roots, all employees’ name badges have the name of their or their family’s country of origin.

“What makes Mi Tienda special is the food, the customers and community,” said Veronica Perales, the store’s food safety tech. “I love coming to work.”

For Colunga, Mi Tienda is more than a grocery store.

“I want my customers to come to our store and experience a beautiful part of our tradition,” Colunga said. “I don’t want this to be a regular store, but a true home visit, that corner store that you can find in Latin America where customers know the owners, and they come and find what they’re going to cook for breakfast, dinner - we’re part of their lives.”