Rainier resident Veronica Brauer probably said it best: “The store makes me feel welcome, like I’m back home in Mexico.”
Brauer, 50, a real estate agent born and raised in Sonora, Mexico, was standing last week near the meat counter at Yelm’s new Mexican store and meat market, El Portal Tienda Mexicana & Carniceria, embracing the memories the store exuded.
She’d come to the market this day to buy carne asada, a popular Mexican slice of beef — usually skirt or flank steak — and a bag of Maseca corn flour to make tortillas.
“The carne asada takes me back to Mexico,” she said. “The flavor is very sentimental to me.”
So, too, are the sweet breads the store sells, though nabbing those takes effort.
“The pastries go real fast, and I have to get here early to get the ones I like the most,” she said. “I enjoy them with a cup of coffee … oh, my goodness.”
El Portal owner Lucero Oseguera, 23, a 2015 Yelm High School graduate, opened the 1,700-square-foot market on Nov. 1 and is still filling the store’s shelves and expecting to add more. Right now it’s a bit bare, though customers will find many Mexican food staples such as Maseca at the ready.
Meeting Thurston County Health Department regulations and then coping with COVID-19-related business sanctions forced Oseguera to postpone her opening from spring to fall — and the resulting complications have hindered her initial plans.
“But little by little we’ve been filling the store, so it’s not so empty,” she said.
Oseguera expects a big push in January.
“We will restock the whole, entire store with more of what we have now and other items that are in other Hispanic stores,” she said. “That will include fruit, produce and more meat. I’ll add amenities to the store that will delight our customers.”
And if she’s fortunate, the meat she’s adding will include a few exotic items.
“I’m going to try and get my hands on some python, rabbit, alligator and deer or elk,” she said.
The meat case is already pretty well stocked: In addition to the ever-favorite carne asada, it typically offers meat cuts for chicken fajita mix beef, pork carnitas and chicken chorizo sausage, among other offerings.
El Portal meat manager Rudolfo Mendez, 41, lauds the merit and flavor of El Portal’s meat.
“We are hoping that the quality of our meats and the time as well as care that is taken to season and marinate will speak for itself,” he said. “We offer simple authenticity.”
The longtime Yelm resident decided to open El Portal — located in the Frontier Village shopping mall at the corner of Mossman Avenue Southeast and First Street South — because she foresaw a profitable business and thought Yelm-area residents would embrace it.
“We were always having to drive 30 to 40 minutes out of town to the nearest Mexican store, and Yelm definitely needed one,” said Oseguera, who also resells houses as a side business. “I’ve been thinking about opening a store like this since I was about 13 years old, and for the past two years I’ve saved up as much money as I could to do it.”
Oseguera gained some business and culinary experience recently when she worked a few months helping open a restaurant at Southcenter Mall in Tukwila.
“I got experience from that about sanitation, processing food, managing employees, and scheduling and hiring,” she said. “I also learned a lot from my dad — who is a general contractor in Yelm — about how to run a business.”
El Portal’s customers — which number from 15 to 25 a day so far — included Roy resident Vincent Constantino, who visited the market for the first time last week to buy carne asada for a New Year’s meal.
“I think it’s great that Yelm has a Mexican market because it’s convenient and close,” said the 38-year-old. “Otherwise I’d have to go to Lacey or Tacoma.”
Constantino’s and Brauer’s reactions to El Portal gratify Oseguera.
“I really enjoy seeing how happy the customers are when they discover that a Mexican store is here,” she said. “And it’s uplifting to see the customers get excited when they find items here they couldn’t find somewhere else.”
For Mendez — who has worked in restaurants since age 18 and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland — El Portal is simply a slice of Mexico.
“Everybody has said this reminds them of home,” he said. “It’s bringing a part of our culture to Yelm, and it reminds you of happiness when you’re eating.”
And it’s helping residents cope with COVID-19 in a special kind of way, Mendez suggested.
“During this time, it’s good to embrace people, and this atmosphere here doesn’t feel like any other place I’ve ever worked,” he said. “We’ve set out to make this not just a store, but an experience.”
Store manager Maria Carrillo, 21 — who does everything from purchasing merchandise to overseeing payroll and taxes — agrees: “I like talking to people and making sure they leave happy. When people come in here we want to make relationships with them, not just in and out.”
And Oseguera — who estimates she’s either related to, or acquainted with, about 80 percent of Yelm’s Hispanic population — wants to get the word out about her friendly, intimate store.
“In 2021, I really need to work on more marketing to make sure people know I’m here,” she said. “And people come to Yelm from other towns to buy items, so I want them to know we’re open, too.”
El Portal Tienda Mexicana & Carniceria is located at 404 First St. S. and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. You may reach the market at 360-960-8405, or visit the store’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/El-Portal-LLC-471790003564930.