When we meet Paulina Gallardo on a sunny day outside her shop near Praça das Flores, she is in a playful mood. She is wearing retro sunglasses and sucking on a green candy. She takes it out of her mouth and shows it to us. It looks green and slimy. “It’s a Mexican candy called Pulparindo. For you, it might be spicy, but for me, it’s sweet,” she says. We ask if the candy has any health benefits, “No, of course not. All Mexican candy is super bad for you. But I’m obsessed. I have it for breakfast.”

We walk into Paulina’s shop, Casa Mexicana [Rua da Quintinha, 72B]. It’s bright and colorful. The shop itself is eye candy. “I’m from Tijuana, on the border between Mexico and the US, but I grew up in San Diego,” Paulina says. It is fair to say you can hear a mixture of accents as Paulina speaks.

We ask Paulina what she wanted to be as a child. “I think I always wanted to be a performer. I loved performing for friends and singing. And I was on TV for some time,” she says. We knew it! Paulina has a natural confidence on camera as we film her and does not seem the slightest bit shy. “I was first a weather girl. I worked for Univision. And then I did a morning show, the news, and a travel show.” “So, you’re famous?” we ask. “No, not at all,” she replies with embarrassment.

Paulina came to Lisbon just before the pandemic, along with her husband, after her husband’s mother moved here. “I think there are about 2000 Mexicans in Portugal,” Paulina tells us. “There are a lot of students that come for a semester, and Cisco Systems seems to be hiring a lot of people from Mexico.”

We ask Paulina why she decided to open Casa Mexicana. “Basically, I just wanted to cook, and I couldn’t find the ingredients. So I thought, why not just make an order of products. And then I made a little website. And one thing led to another,” she says.

Paulina opened the grocery store on Rua das Quintinhas, near Praça das Flores, after realising that the online business was doing well. Photos: Rita Ansone.

“Did you ever think you would be running a little Mexican food shop?” “No, never. And to be honest, there aren’t many shops like it in other cities. I buy the products that I like, and the brands that I trust. What I would cook with is all here,” she says.

Paulina proceeds to show us her fancy selection of chili peppers. “We have so many different types of chilies. Every chili brings its own identity to a dish. And people should know that not all Mexican food is spicy,” she says.

For fun, we ask Paulina if she were a chili, which one would she be. She doesn’t even have to think. “I would be a pasilla. I love the flavor profile. It’s sexy. But I don’t consider myself sexy. But I’m a good flavor, and I’m well-rounded,” she says.

With that, Paulina decides she wants to take us to see her new venture, a Mexican restaurant in Bairro Alto called Mezcaleria. “Vamos,” she says, marching out the door.

As we walk, Paulina takes a call. She is now in full businesswoman mode. “I think prices are actually stabilizing if you want to buy something in Lisbon. I follow Idealista all the time, and I am seeing a lot of price reductions. For a long time, all we saw was up, up, up.”

What did Paulina find to be the most difficult thing about opening a business in Lisbon? “The accounting, my god. And the Portuguese bureaucracy. I went through about four accountants before I figured it out. You cannot do it without help, especially as a foreigner. You need someone who is there for you and who has your back.”

As we walk up a steep hill, Paulina informs us that she actually loves the hills of Lisbon. We are huffing and puffing trying to keep up. “I don’t have a gym membership, so I love it. This is my workout. Constantly running back and forth between the restaurant and the shop.”

When we arrive at Paulina’s restaurant, the chef is already preparing some food for us to try. Paulina lets us try a variety of Mexican sodas. They are sweet, the best we can say at the time of writing. There is a fantastic lineup of chili sauces, standing in front of a red backdrop. “I think what we do here is real food. No overcomplicating, no bullshit.”

Despite all the running about and the outward confidence, Paulina tells us about the real her. “The real me is actually super quiet. I like to be in silence. Probably because I have to talk so much in my work. But I do need time to myself just to center, to relax, and then I come back out into the world and put on the show,” she says while throwing her arms open in full Broadway style.

Despite selling Mexicana in Lisbon, Paulina admits to not being too fond of some Mexican clichés. “As a people, we have a very good sense of humor. So, we don’t mind being made fun of a bit. But you know, sometimes when I go on a TV show, they might ask me to wear a sombrero… and I’m like no. I can’t ruin my hair,” she says with a laugh. “Also, some of the cliché music… no.”

We sample some of the food cooked up by Paulina’s chef, which was delicious. It came with a crunch and had the potential to be very messy, but we survived.

In closing, we needed some wise words from Paulina. “People need to just do what they want to do. Stop overthinking it. If you eat well, drink well… I’m not going to say the last thing.” She laughs out loud.

We are slow. “Wait, what were you going to say?”

It’s too late. The moment has passed. And with that, we say Adios to our friend Paulina.

YouTube video
Paulina Gallardo on People of Lisbon. By Stephen O’Regan.

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