Photograph by J. Bennett Fitts
Asian grocery stores can be a study in overstimulation: tens of thousands of square feet packed with meticulously stacked shelves, open-air tubs of fish, brightly wrapped snacks, dozens of twists on fermented soy, and jackfruits the size of toddlers. They’re also a good deal; we feel like suckers for ever having paid $2.99 a pound for nectarines. In a region boasting one of the largest Asian populations outside of Asia, we also have some of the best megastores. They’ve pushed out many of the mom-and-pops, but for newbies, these markets offer a cultural education along with spectacle.
99 RANCH MARKET
At the San Gabriel branch of the Taiwanese-owned chain, a small stand selling honeydew juice greets shoppers at the door. The produce section is full of crisp greens and oyster mushrooms ideal for stir-frying. Vegetarians flip for the veggie versions of animal products like pork belly and duck. For the real deal, the meat case displays pyramid-shaped stacks of pork and fish balls ready for soups. » 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-307-8899.
If you’ve ever visited a deluxe department store in Asia, you know that the basement holds a wonderland of food. So it is at the Koreatown Galleria. Descend an escalator into a sea of pristine produce, tasty banchan (Korean prepared foods), and dozens upon dozens of kimchi varieties. In the seafood section, spotted squid glisten through plastic wrap. Nearby is an aisle with imported candies. There are less expensive spots for Korean goods, but if aesthetics matter, this is the place. » 3250 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown, 323-733-3800.
The frozen armadillo is a disturbing sight, and the lamb testes, pig brains, cow’s feet, and pork blood aren’t exactly PG, either. If you can get past the live turtle tub without trying to rescue one, you’re stronger than we are. Ditto the toad tank. In addition to the zoo worthy collection of proteins, there are four types of bananas and a terrific selection of bakery items, including sesame balls, moon cakes, and sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. » 120 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, 626-307-0062.
This former Kmart in Little Saigon lives up to its name in every way. Polished floors gleam. Vietnamese-style baguettes are freshly baked. Bagged greens and three varieties of basil border a picture-perfect produce section. Aquariums are stocked with lobsters, and the huge meat and seafood counter is the most impressive we’ve ever seen. You can also have a whole fish of your choice killed, cleaned, and deep-fried for free. » 15440 Beach Blvd., Westminster, 714-891-6288.
Hollywood’s dense Thai Town doesn’t allow for megamarkets, but Bangluck’s cramped quarters are a favorite haunt of Thai chefs. The modest shop carries some of the more unusual 151 fruits and vegetables; in a few square feet we found dragon fruit, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind pods. Through a doorway in the back is a small full-service meat and fish counter with prices that make you wonder how Gelson’s survives. Don’t have a pot to cook in? They sell commercial-grade equipment, too. » 5170 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-660-8000.
ISLAND PACIFIC SUPERMARKET
The West Covina outpost of this Filipino grocery chain is a smidge less spiffy than the Seafood City across the street, but the lower prices and helpful staffers have made it beloved among locals. Bananas come in red, green, small, and jumbo. Durian—smelly enough to have been outlawed on trains in several countries—can be fresh, frozen, blended with ice cream, or made into candies. Crinkly bags of chicharrones, or fried pork skin, are at the end of each aisle. A food court offers Filipino-style fast food and hot pastries such as turon, a sweet banana-stuffed egg roll. » 1512 E. Amar Rd., West Covina, 626-964-4858.
The incongruity alone is worth a trip: a Chinese market in an old-timey, western-themed strip mall. Along the back, tanks brim with crabs, lobsters, geoducks, and Manila clams. One could easily make a lunch from the sample stations serving treats like dumplings and rice balls. The tea selection warrants a full aisle, and the spread of fresh noodles rivals that of any shop in the area. » 1421 E. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, 626-282-5168.
In a corner of Japanese Village Plaza, this tiny storefront hides a much bigger market than is evident from the outside. Refrigerated cases hold Japanese grab-and-go meals for the downtown lunch crowd. But it’s the slowfood staples that are the draw. Nijiya sells organic fruits and veggies grown on its pesticide-free farm and works with a Sacramento farmer to cultivate three types of organic short-grain rice. Japanese markets are less keen on showing their fish live, but here you’ll find precut and packaged sashimi-grade seafood, including tuna and salmon. The chain’s bakeries are famous for their subtly sweet cakes and Japanese-style breads.» 124 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Little Tokyo, 213-680-3280.
If a killer pickle counter is the key to a great Japanese market, then the megastore’s Gardena branch transcends all others. Pickled garlic, ginger, eggplant, lotus, plums, and more fill nearly an entire wall of this store, which beats any Whole Foods in swank. The company started in Hawaii, and it shows. Stuck between the sashimi-grade fish, fresh Japanese noodles, and slivers of wagyu beef are macadamia nuts, frozen poi, and shelves of Spam. Not just hungry? The store also sells clothes, toys, books, exercise equipment, and even antique furniture. Like Costco, this Marukai requires membership, but day passes are only $1.» 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, 310-660-6300.