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  • Kelly Sanford

Zócalo Fish Market and Grill (It’s Hip to Be Square)

Imagine walking into the doors of a local seafood market where attention to every detail has not been lost. The building is new and modern. Over fifty varieties of fresh fish and shellfish are displayed in pristine glass cases, with neatly arranged sections of produce, spices, local honey, and sauces throughout. The atmosphere, reminiscent of a Fresh Market or boutique grocer, is pleasant and inviting. There are prepackaged portions of housemade ceviche and aguachile alongside an array of fresh salsas. Coolers stocked with cold beer and wine, and freezers, filled with even more frozen seafood and vegetables, line the walls. A restaurant and grill attached gives customers the option to have their purchase professionally prepared for dinein or take-out, and also boasts a wide-ranging menu and stylish indoor and outdoor seating. Now, what if I told you this place exists and is located right here, in the heart of Florida?

Say hello to Haines City’s own Zócalo Fish Market and Grill, a unique, family-owned eatery and market wowing seafood lovers of all backgrounds and ethnicities. The grill offers primarily Latin-based cuisine ranging from molcajete and mofongo to tacos and ceviche, while the market offers everything from oysters and octopus to ahi tuna and Chilean sea bass. The doors opened in April of 2021, but to understand its origins, we have to go all the way back to the 1960s.

Gabriel Tejada had just immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City and started out washing dishes in a restaurant. Over the next decade or so, he held several different jobs, always saving money for a new opportunity. During this time, he met his wife, Esperanza. They married in 1969 and had two children, Juan and Ibelice. By the mid-70s, they had saved enough money to buy a small bodega in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was the first of several businesses the family would own and operate, including laundromats, more bodegas, and even a supermarket.

In April of 2002, the entire world was still reeling from the September 11th attacks, and Gabriel and Esperanza, along with their son Juan and his wife Magaly, moved to Central Florida for a new start. Some family had moved here in previous years, and the Tejada’s saw an opportunity to take what they’d learned in the hyper-competitive New York City market and apply it here. Gabriel and Juan purchased a small convenience store in Haines City and, with a lot of hard work, built it into a thriving general store. Gabriel chose the name “Zócalo” (pronounced soh-kuh-loh) to appeal to the Mexican immigrant population that was, at the time, their primary customer base. Translated to English, it means the public square or plaza of a city or town, the most famous of which being in Mexico City. In the years to come, Zócalo would live up to its well-chosen namesake.

Sadly, Gabriel passed away in 2005 at only 65 years of age, leaving the business to his wife, Esperanza, and children, Juan and Ibelice. Until then, Ibelice and her husband, Bryan Delaney, had only contributed financially and helped when they could when visiting from New York, as the couple operated several bars in the city. They became much more involved with the running of the market, and their combined experience, along with Juan’s, helped the business to continue growing.

In 2009, a twist of fate would offer an opportunity to grow exponentially when the land next door was developed into a large plaza. Delaney said, “The corner location was to house a supermarket with a Latin focus, putting it in direct competition with the Zócalo Discount Food.” However, the owner approached the family and proposed they take over the space instead and move Zócalo to that location. “The idea of jumping from a 2400 square foot space with eight employees to a 15,000+ square foot, full-blown supermarket with possibly 50 to 80 employees was a bit frightening, to say the least!” said Delaney. “The three of us [Juan, Ibelice, and Delaney] met and agreed to make the move, and we signed the lease in October of 2009.”

“We opened in March of 2010 on a hope and a lot of prayers!” continued Delaney. “Underfunded, overextended, but loaded with excitement and a strong work ethic, Juan and his small team from the original store began to run the business and grow with each month.”

Over the last decade, the supermarket has expanded to 16,000 square feet. It has a full-service butcher, a full bakery, an in-house tortilla maker, produce and dry goods, and a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many of the employees from the original store now work as managerial staff, overseeing different departments of the store, with Juan as the principal owner and manager. Delaney said, “The supermarket has become a center of the entire Latin-American community, offering foods that cater to Caribbean, Central, and South American cultures, as well as the original Mexican products and cuisine.”

After Esperanza passed away in September 2011, leaving the business to her children, the family continued to carry on the Tejada legacy of hard work and searching out new opportunities. “The grill idea came from growing up in the northeast where this is more common in seafood markets where you often have a grill attached offering the fresh daily catches for consumption on premise,” Dalaney added.

The seafood market itself is extraordinary. The sheer selection of fish and shellfish conjures images of Las Ramblas Market in Barcelona, with almost every kind of seafood imaginable. They have whole fishes, fileted fishes, crawfish, mussels, squid, octopus, clams, conch meat, crab legs, whole crabs, live crabs, lobster, shrimp of all sizes, and more. There are even pre-shucked oysters (with accoutrements included), and the range of produce is extensive enough to make this a one-stop shop for a fabulous seafood dinner.

The Molcajete is a combination of jumbo shrimp, octopus, calamari, fried fish, crab claws, peppers, scallions, and onions served in a creamy jalapeno cheese broth, sizzling hot, in a special iron bowl. The Puerto Rican specialty, mofongo, can be served with either shrimp, calamari, scallops, or chicken and consists of mashed plantains mixed with garlic covered in a red marinara-style sauce or a cream-based “white” sauce. There is a Zócalo-style lobster roll served with spicy mayo on a Kaiser roll and fried plantains filled with seafood. In addition, the grill serves tacos, fajitas, a variety of grilled and fried fish, chicken, steak, sandwiches and burgers, ceviche, soup, salad, and wings. The grill’s signature drink is the Michelada, a cross between a beer and a spicy Bloody Mary, but other beers and wine options are available. They also offer house-made Agua Fresca flavors like watermelon, passion fruit, and mango that rotate daily, along with sodas and lemonade.

The Tejada family is committed to customer service and constantly working with new ideas and fun additions to the menu, like the recently added, Oysters under the Sun, a cold beer served amid a plate of raw oysters topped with spicy ceviche. Future plans include more events for customers like fish fries, sponsoring fishing charters, and expanding their rotating fish selections. They are adding a lobster tank to offer live Maine lobster and working on providing recipes through social media and, possibly, in-store demonstrations.

As the business has grown, Zócalo has seen its customer base evolve from primarily Hispanic to a much more diverse clientele. With a bilingual staff and excellent signage in both English and Spanish, Zócalo encourages everyone to visit, no matter their ethnic background. The hard work and attention to detail this family brings to the “table” are sure to delight seafood lovers from all walks of life. Gabriel and Esperanza would be proud!

Photographs by Nate Schaller

Zócalo Fish Market and Grill

308 U.S. Hwy 17-92 N, Haines City, FL

(863) 547-8003

FB: Zocalo Fish Market and Grill

IG @zocalofishmarketgrill


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