The new 49,000-square-foot El Super supermarket on Parthenia Street in Panorama City looks a lot like a Costco, except the signs are in Spanish, and pig's butt or lamb's head aren't available at Costco.

Nor can you get five pounds of rice there for less than a dollar, like you can at El Super.

Looking over some papayas with her mother, Naomi Munoz voiced approval of the large, clean, well-lit superstore that offers Mexican spices and handmade tortillas that can't be found at mainstream supermarkets.

"It's much better than Vons," said Munoz, who had come for the first time on a friend's recommendation. "There are all sorts of things you can't find at other markets, especially in the meat department. It's just like a store in Mexico."

The Panorama City store, which opened three weeks ago, is operated by Southgate-based Bogeda Latina, which is controlled by Grupo Comercial Chedraui, Mexico's fourth-largest retailer. It's the second El Super in the United States (the first is in Southgate), with further expansion expected in Southern California. Bogeda Latina officials declined to comment.

El Super's growth comes as Grupo Gigante, Mexico's third-largest retailer, also moves into Los Angeles. Gigante opened a store in May in Pico Rivera, and has another one scheduled to open in the northeastern San Fernando Valley in October. It is looking at locations in the San Gabriel Valley as well.

"The market is huge for serving the needs of Latinos," said Roberto Barragan, vice president of business lending for the Valley Economic Development Center. "(The Latino population) is now about 29 percent of the Valley; by the 2000 census, it will probably be around 35 percent."

Because the chains have developed a loyal customer base in Mexico, there is an established clientele already familiar with their reputation and products. And with so much money flowing from Mexico to the United States, it makes economic sense for Mexican companies to grab a foothold here.

"(U.S.) manufacturers think this is a tail-end market, but our purchasing power is $395 billion (annually), and growing by $1 billion every three weeks," said Steve Soto, president of the 18,000-member Mexican-American Grocers Association. "We've got 7 million Mexicans in L.A. County. (El Super) has got their finger on the pulse. It's a good time to be a retailer in the Latino area."

Along with lower prices, Latino supermarkets offer the kind of personal service from butchers and bakers that mainstream chains don't have. Eventually, that may mean the end of the mom-and-pop carnecerias (butcher shops) that dot the city.

"Right now, demand for carnecerias is greater than supply, but eventually the smaller stores will suffer some," Barragan said. "That's capitalism."

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