Smile Politely

El Progreso: a South-of-the-Border grocer

It’s fiesta time every weekend at El Progresso! One of our town’s best kept secrets is a little family-run Mexican grocery store that features great take-home meals every Saturday and Sunday.

I’ll come right out and say it: I love grocery stores and food markets. It’s quite logical. I love to eat; therefore, I love to cook and in order to cook up a good meal, you need good groceries. Elsewhere in the world, the best groceries come from small producers at the local market. But here in the United States, markets for small local producers are few and far in between, so we shop at supermarkets instead. That usually means big chain stores and even bigger chains of giant box stores.

Fortunately, here in Champaign-Urbana, we can still shop small at our seasonal farmers’ market, at our locally-owned food co-op, at our local butcher, our local tea shop, our local coffee roaster, and our many mom-and-pop grocers.

Photo by Paul Young.

Among ethnic grocers, my personal favorite is El Progreso. Here you can get all the ingredients you need for homemade Mexican meals. Like most grocery stores, they also offer prepared meals, and this is where El Progreso shines the brightest.

Want barbacoa? They have it every weekend. Want homemade tripe soup? You can get it here. Don’t like scraping cactus thorns for your cactus salad? They’ve done it for you.

I’ve been curious about this place for years, so I contacted the owner for an interview. Not only did they say “yes,” but they even invited me into their kitchen to get a close look at how they cook up all the great food I’ve been buying there for years.

Photo by Paul Young.

Smile Politely: Who owns the El Progreso grocery stores?

Alex Corado: We are a family business. The stores are owned by my two brothers, Arnaldo and Ángel. My sister Marleny and I are also involved.

SP: What is your role at El Progreso?

Corado: I am in charge of the produce area. Both the restaurant and the kitchen are my responsibility. My brother Arnoldo is in charge of the Champaign store. My other brother Ángel is in charge of the Urbana store.

SP: How long has your family owned these two stores? Does your family own any other businesses in the area?

Corado: We bought the first grocery store 12 years ago. We also own other businesses in Rantoul that sell home products and tools.

SP: Besides your brothers and sister, what other family members are involved in the business? 

Corado: Another brother Willy Corado also works with us. Paola García is his wife, and she is a cashier. My nephew Jimmy Corado is a stocker. At the other store in Urbana, my oldest brother Ángel Corado works there with his daughter Marly Corado, his son Ángel Corado Jr, and his wife Juana Corado.

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: Although I think of your store as a Mexican grocery store, you are obviously much more diverse. Would you call yourself a Latin grocery store?

Corado: Yes, we are a Latin American grocery store, and we have some African products, too.

SP: I understand your family is not from Mexico. Before your family emigrated to the United States, what kind of business was your family involved in?

Corado: We are from Guatemala. When we were kids, my mom had a small grocery store in our little town in Guatemala.

SP: There are several Mexican grocery stores around town. What makes El Progreso unique?

Corado: On weekends, we make the best barbacoa in the area. We start on Friday and cook the meat for over six hours. We make both a pork and a goat version (if the “chivo” sign is not up, ask for it).

The meat is cooked in a rich broth of chiles, garlic, ginger, cloves, cumin, and other spices. We use the whole animal (all the parts). Then we finish it on Saturday around 6 a.m. and fry up the chicharrones (pork rinds) at the same time.

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: How do you eat barbacoa?

Corado: Barbacoa meat can be used for any dish: tacos, burritos, quesadillas. Traditionally, we like to garnish the dish with onion and cilantro plus a squeeze of lime. We also make fresh pico de gallo (“salsa fresca”) every weekend.

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: What goes well with barbacoa?

Corado: We make a fresh batch of ensalada de nopales (cactus salad) on both Saturday and Sunday mornings. Made with fresh prickly pear cactus and tossed with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime, and then sprinkled with cheese, this salad makes an excellent side dish for barbacoa.

SP: I’ve had your menudo (tripe soup) before, and it’s great. Is that also only available on the weekends?

Corado: Yes, only on Saturday or Sunday. It also takes hours to cook. We make the broth from scratch with cow’s feet and bone marrow. The seasoning is a tasty mix of garlic, onions, cloves, and guajillo peppers. You can order a bowl at our taqueria or buy a half-gallon tub to go. Just ask for it at the counter.

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: What else do you carry that other Mexican grocers don’t carry?

Corado: We have imported beers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Peru. Also sauces from Puerto Rico.

SP: Tell us about your taqueria.

Corado: We used to have a taco truck that we called Tacos Locos. When we opened our little restaurant in Champaign two years ago, we moved the truck to the Urbana location. But we still like to call our taqueria “Tacos Locos.”

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: What else is unique about El Progreso?

Corado: We have homemade churros, made right here in our kitchen, and we’re always well stocked with piñatas for any kind of kids party. Our bulletin board also serves as a good resource for the Hispanic community.

Photo by Paul Young.

SP: Anything else gringos need to know when shopping here?

Corado: Yes, a quick note about tortillas. In Central Illinois, everyone agrees that the Milagro brand is the best. They come with either paper or plastic wrapping. I always get the ones with the plastic wrapping because they taste fresher. These tortillas are made fresh daily in Chicago, and we have to drive up twice a week to get them for our customers.

SP: I’ve noticed that many of your employees stay with you for a long time. Why do you think that is?

Corado: We have workers that have been working with us for more than 10 years. We treat them like our own family.

Photo by Paul Young.

El Progreso
1302 N Cunningham Ave
8 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily

1017 W Bloomington Rd
8 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily

Top image by Paul Young.

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