Listen to this and other podcasts by Orlando Montoya at savannahpodcast.com
SAVANNAH'S SUBURBAN Southside might as well fall off the edge of the planet to some downtowners.
But when it comes to international cuisine, I think those of us who live among the traffic lights and shopping malls have the best of the city.
Now we have Savannah’s first Mexican supermarket. Super International at the corner of Waters Avenue and Montgomery Cross Road is not a couple of shelves with a few sugary Cokes. This is a 12,500 square foot Mexican food embassy that says a lot about our city.
An enterprising South Carolina couple, Jobita and Efraín Hernández, independently own and run the store.
Down the middle of it, they stock five isles of Mexican imports in boxes, bags and cans.
But, as in any supermarket, linger around its edges for store-made favorites. Marranitos (pig-shaped cookies) and orejas (flaky pastry) from the bakery. Carnitas (braised pork) and chicharrones (pork rinds) from the deli. Spicy marinated meats for fajitas and carne asada. Tortillas, chips. There are too many store-made items to list!
I asked Jobita why the couple basically runs a take-out restaurant inside a grocery store.
“We want to give a true flavor, a Mexico flavor,” Jobita says. “There are so many that are already in the package. They don’t taste like we know it should taste.”
Customers in South Carolina have known the Hernández taste for about a decade.
The couple ran a bakery, La Espiga Dorada, and a restaurant, Taco Fiesta, before combining and expanding their businesses into a grocery store, the first Super International, in Bluffton. It opened about eight years ago. They opened a second one on Hilton Head Island about five years ago.
Jobita describes the way the Savannah store came about as a heavenly birthday gift.
“One or two weeks before, one of my daughters asked me, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’” Jobita says. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want nothing. I just want something from Him, from the Lord.’”
At the time, the couple was scoping out locations for a third store. But they weren’t having much success.
Save-a-Lot was vacating a space across from Carey Hilliard’s. But Dollar General had first dibs on it. Other locations also weren’t working.
“The day of my birthday, the manager here called me to let me know that the plans were gone with the Dollar General,” Jobita says. “It was available for us.”
Whether it was divine planning or just business, the couple has hard work in their blood.
Jobita, born in Houston and raised in Mexico City and Atlanta, helped her mother run a bakery in the Georgia capital when she was 13 years old.
“She’s the kind of person that believes not to work for somebody but to work for herself,” Jobita says. “She is my inspiration.”
Efraín, from San Luis Potesí in Central Mexico, worked in the blistering chemical-soaked tobacco fields of North Carolina before meeting Jobita in South Carolina.
Together, they’re building bridges between American and Mexican shoppers.
“That’s another thing that we have tried. To bring in the American product and blend it in with our products,” Jobita says.
“That’s definitely something so different here in Savannah than in Bluffton and Hilton Head.”
So, you’ll find Cheetos next to Ziba, Coca-Cola next to Jarritos and on and on. Jamaican and Asian products round out the “international” in their name.
And, because this is a supermarket, you’ll find everything you expect from laundry supplies to produce and freezer items. Just with cactus nearby.
So, experiment to your own comfort level. As for me, I’ll just have to take Jobita’s word on pickled pork skins.
“You put it on a hard tortilla and you eat it like that,” she says. “It’s really good.”