You would think that in a big cosmopolitan city like Lisbon, there would be more stores selling products expats are craving from back home. But you would be wrong to think that. I am all for eating local and traditional dishes, but after a few weeks here, I have to admit I was getting tired of bacalhau and was craving some tamales. Sadly, the closest Latin American shop Google Maps could find me (not including Brazilian ones), was in Spain... So I went on adding piri-piri sauce to my plate, secretly wishing it were Valentina Salsa.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one disheartened by the lack of Latin American products here in Portugal. Born in Tijuana Mexico, raised in San Diego California, and having lived in London, Paulina Gallardo never had trouble finding food from home until she came to Lisbon. When she moved to Portugal a year and a half ago, she learned the hard way that Mexican cuisine here is actually Tex-Mex, and finding authentic tortillas are like finding golden Willy Wonka tickets. “My friends convinced me to do a pop-up, but it was impossible to find the products I needed to cook!”, she tells me. “Before, there was just one woman selling tortillas from her home. Access to these kinds of products is very limited, and very expensive, so I wanted to do something about this problem”.
Thus, in December of last year was born Casa México. A Christmas miracle for all Latinx expats. “Casa México came from the need to make authentic Mexican products more available and at affordable prices”, Paulina explains. She started out by contacting all the tortilla manufacturers she could find, asking them to send her samples, then she created the website, contacted restaurants and markets for potential partnerships… suddenly Casa México became her full-time job. “It took over my life” she says laughingly.
Now, you can buy authentic Mexican, salsas, tortillas, candies, drinks and much more! Casa México delivers all over Europe and their products can be found in certain restaurants and markets in Lisbon and Porto. If you’re new to Mexican cuisine and don’t know what to do with your tortillas once you’ve bought them, you can find easy traditional Mexican recipes on their blog and Instagram page. Paulina Gallardo also hosts free Zoom workshops for 20 to 25 people. If you want to be sure you have all the right ingredients for the next workshop, the online grocery store sells product packages for 15 euros. You can even try a different taco every month with their new taco subscription.
“Food is universal, it brings people together”
What started out as a personal frustration became a much larger issue. Now, the demand for these products just gets bigger and bigger and Mexican ingredients are starting to appear all around the city. While her business is “fun and gratifying”, Paulina Gallardo doesn’t see Casa México expanding into a physical store. Especially now, in post-pandemic times, everyone is used to shopping online and the idea of a Casa México store “is limiting”, she insists. However, Paulina has lots of ideas for the future. She plans on having more affordable shipping rates, private workshops, chefs that come to cook dinner for you at your house, as well as mariachi bands that can play for you on special occasions at home, or via zoom.
Initially, the Mexican demographic in Lisbon – which is continuously growing but still quite small compared to its French and Spanish neighbors – was the target demographic for Casa México. Then suddenly, “all of the expats were becoming interested in the store”, Paulina says, and “there is a growing international community in Portugal, and in Lisbon in particular”. Now, the Portuguese are also becoming curious. “Portuguese are becoming more adventurous as well, more open, and willing to learn”, the Mexican-American explains, while we talk in the Principe Real neighborhood. A district in Lisbon that ironically is the perfect example of the diversity she is describing. Paulina points out all the variety in food you can find here. On the corner of one street, there is an Austrian restaurant, followed by an Italian grocery store. Up the road is a French-owned café, next to a Brazilian-owned restaurant. “Expats bring a piece of them here”, the creator of Casa México says. “Food is universal, it connects, units, it brings people together”.
Bringing people together is also Gallardo’s goal with her new online shop. The brand even inspired the creation of other brands here in Portugal, like the homemade Chilimili hot sauce or handmade tortilla Cassava, exclusively made for Casa México. “It’s not just a store, it’s a platform where people can sell, buy, promote. I want it to be a community of people looking for recipes or looking to learn about Mexico”, she says. Like we say in Spanish, mi casa es su casa. And in this house, local artisans, cooks, entrepreneurs… Everyone is welcome in Casa México.