MARKETS : Ron’s: East Hollywood’s Un-Supermarket
Ron’s Supermarket, 5270 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 465-1164. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
From the outside, Ron’s Supermarket may look like an ordinary grocery store, but when you step inside, you feel as though you’re in an international bazaar. One side of the market is taken up by a huge meat and deli department with a staff of multilingual countermen--the murmur of conversations around you resembles break time at the United Nations. Since opening 14 years ago, Ron’s has mirrored the cultural diversity of its East Hollywood neighborhood.
Ron’s faithful customers come in for such things as Bucharest salami, Hungarian bacon, Odessa cheese and Armenian basturma . One deli case holds an enormous array of Eastern European-style smoked and cured fish alongside tins of black malossol caviar that Ron’s parent company imports from Russia.
Breads run the gamut from Lithuanian and Polish ryes to Near Eastern tanur lavash and madnakash. Another area is stocked with a small selection of Mexican pan dulce.
Ron’s carries the usual basics such as oatmeal and detergents, but what inspires customers to return are such finds as Italian chocolates in fancy boxes, Yugoslavian preserves or rock-bottom prices on Romanian Merlot.
The produce department, where Mexican and Hungarian peppers or purple basil may be had for a song, often features bargains as good as you’d find at the Grand Central Market downtown. “People buy in quantity,” says produce manager Milt Miller. “Not just a box of strawberries, but a whole flat or 25 pounds of potatoes or a case of tomatoes.”
It’s best to have a flexible shopping list here because you never know what surprises Ron’s has recently received. The fun of shopping amid this wildly diverse melange is that it usually inspires wonderful impromptu meals. One time I put together a dinner party after I discovered Ron’s smoked New Zealand lamb legs. Horseradish and fresh herbs from the produce department made my potato salad into a lively dish. And for dessert I bought some tiny Champagne grapes and an Italian mocha-filled cake roll. Just for fun, we did a tasting of Yugoslavian and Armenian mineral waters.
What explains Ron’s rather serendipitous approach to marketing is that it is the sole retail outlet for the American International Food Importing Co. The company both imports from and exports to Eastern Europe, the Near East and the Russian Commonwealth countries. Ron’s is used as a sort of test market, where the company tries out products that it may later distribute to shops and restaurants. Many of these items, such as Italian or Lebanese olive oil, are packed for the company under its own Alinka label.
“We have a joint venture now in Poland,” says owner Charlie Asatryan. “Ours is a sort of Price Club-type store. We do barter deals with them by exchanging Polish products for American goods. Since perestroika, we’re starting to make these deals with many other former Eastern Bloc countries whose currencies are unstable.”
Ron’s has a community feel to it. As he calls a cab for an elderly customer, the floor manager tries to translate for me the Armenian writing on a bottle of unsweetened grape syrup. A produce worker takes time to explain the uses of several unfamiliar herbs. And at the deli, a Romanian couple volunteers a detailed discourse on how to use Romanian sausage and afumata.
Best of all, Ron’s is where the curious shopper can visit half the marketplaces of the world without going any farther than Sunset Boulevard.
FRESH AND CURED FISH
* Cured fish, either smoked, dried or pickled, is the highlight of Ron’s deli counter. Most items are labeled in English so you can easily select from such things as hot or cold smoked sturgeon (osetrina), dry sea trout or smoked sablefish. White fish and trout come hot-smoked or cold-smoked, as do several other types of fish. Large smoked salmon are displayed in the round and sliced to order. Russians slice the fish crosswise and serve it with the bones intact. The whole pickled herring imported from Russia is processed in New York.
The traditional way to eat all these delicacies, according to Asatryan, is with hot boiled potatoes lightly buttered and sprinkled with snipped fresh baby dill. All this must be consumed with shots of iced vodka, and Ron’s stocks an exciting range of flavored vodkas including lemon and red pepper. Across from the deli area in the freezer, nicely arranged trays of assorted boned and sliced smoked fish (salmon, sable and shad or sturgeon) come ready to serve.
* Sturgeon: Ron’s is one of the few places in the city that carries unsmoked sturgeon (the fish that yields caviar). The firm, pink flesh has a flavor that some have compared to veal. Sturgeons can live more than a 100 years and weigh in at 1,000 pounds and up. Ron’s procures young fish that slice up into nicely sized dinner steaks.
Several good ways to prepare sturgeon steaks: braise them in a garlic-onion-and-tomato sauce; marinate them overnight in wine with a mixture of minced shallots, parsley and vinegar, then cook the fish in its marinade. Cut the fish into chunks, then skewer and brush them with sour cream before barbecuing. Kebabs are a popular Russian treatment for sturgeon.
* Natatenya: These long, thin strips of smoked black cod come from the underbelly and are prized for their richer meat.
* Salt sardines and anchovies: The nice thing about both of these products is that they aren’t subjected to the high heat that softens the texture of canned anchovies and sardines. The anchovies in wine sauce have a tart-sweet marinade, Scandinavian-style.
* Caviar: Ron’s imports fresh black Russian caviar. On hand are both 00 beluga (the mid-sized eggs) and 00 sevruga. Also available is pasteurized osetra.
* Vobla: These rather chewy pieces of savory smoked and dried fish are eaten as a snack with beer.
PRESERVED MEATS AND SAUSAGES
* Mititei: I was advised by a charming couple who were buying this Romanian-style sausage that it must be barbecued. “It’s the best grilled outside,” said the woman, “that’s the way we love it in Romania, grilled and always dipped in mustard.” Pan-fried or mashed potatoes or sauerkraut are traditional accompaniments along with tart, pickled vegetables such as green tomatoes. These sausages are never cooked in such dishes as soups or stewed beans.
* Afumata: Near the Romanian sausages is afumata, a smoked pork hock. I was advised that afumata does wonders for a pot of Romanian-style dried beans stewed with onions and garlic. It’s fine too when cooked with sauerkraut. You can also make a marvelous main dish by baking the hock until it is half-cooked before adding sliced potatoes, celery, carrots and a little water. Then continue to bake the dish until the vegetables are tender.
* Kaizer flash: This smoked Romanian-style bacon comes in a slab. Romanians fry it up to serve as an appetizer or to eat for breakfast. In the Romanian countryside, the bacon is traditionally served sliced and as is on bread (the smoking actually cooks the bacon).
* Hungarian salami: If the thought of eating something as fatty as kaizer flash makes you cringe, you might prefer csabai, a spicy dry Hungarian salami flavored with hot paprika, which can be found hanging above the cheeses. Teli salami is similar but has no paprika. These salamis come in an eight-inch size and a two-foot size. Look for additional brands across from the deli on a counter holding miscellaneous cured meats and sausages.
* Gyulai: Among all of Ron’s sausages, one of the most versatile is Hungarian gyulai, a well-seasoned smoked sausage that gives character to all sorts of dishes, from soup to braised potatoes. Gyulai is also a fine eating sausage. Ron’s carries several brands of gyulai, which, along with the imported Hungarian sauerkraut, makes an incomparable Transylvanian potato-and-sausage goulash. Serve this with pickled red peppers, which, of course, Ron’s carries too.
* Hungarian karaj: A cured and cold-smoked boneless pork loin with a deep smoky flavor that comes from a firm in Illinois. Although karaj is traditionally eaten sliced very thinly on buttered bread, it has all sorts of other uses. I stir-fried about six ounces of cabbage and when it was tender,added two ounces of diced karaj and two tablespoons of chicken broth, then covered the pan until the cabbage finished cooking. Supplemented with a baked potato and sour cream it was a fine fast meal for one. The smoky flavor of this meat cries out to be in omelets or frittatas or perhaps even spaghetti carbonara. But unlike bacon or sausage, which require more extensive cooking, you want to add karaj to a dish when it’s nearly done.
Ron’s several styles of Russian bread include Kiev, a sourdough rye with a soft crumb, and Borotinsky, a sourdough wheat-and-rye bread. One Pullman-shaped loaf with a firm crumb--simply labeled “Russian Bread"--is primarily composed of pale fine rye flour and high gluten flour. Polish rye (Polski chleb) is a firm light rye and gluten flour loaf. And Latvian bread is a fine-grained, dense sourdough rye without seeds.
* Manaeesh: Also known as zatar bread, this round, leavened bread resembles soft thick focaccia sprinkled with tart ground sumac berries. It’s popular with Lebanese and Armenians for breakfast.
* Lahmajune: Some call lahmajune Armenian pizza. They are cracker-thin crusts topped with spiced ground meat and flecked with pepper. Lamajune come in half-dozen stacks packaged in plastic bags. They are best heated for seven to 10 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven.
* Nan-e-barbari: This nearly flat yeast-risen loaf, about two feet long and 10 inches across, is a typical Persian breakfast bread. It is scored lengthwise, giving the bread long ridges. The traditional breakfast accompaniments are sweet tea, hot milk, thickened cream, jam and butter. The cream is available as “breakfast cream” in the dairy case.
Ron’s cheese selection isn’t too exotic, but all the basics for Eastern European and Middle Eastern cooking can be cut to order. As for feta cheese, Ron’s carries five styles including the double-cream Hungarian feta and the drier French variety--lower in fat and salt--as well as Greek feta and a Bulgarian, which comes highly recommended. There are also French and Bulgarian kashkavals and Bulgarian, French and Yugoslavian Kasseris, both of which are made by the same method as mozzarella but aged longer, making for stronger flavors.
* Armenian brinza: Ron’s packs its own Armenian-style feta that, unlike the other fetas that come in large blocks, takes the form of small individual rounds, packed several to a tub of brine. According to Asatryan, this sheep’s-milk cheese gets its characteristic flavor from an enzyme different from the type used to make other fetas. In any case it’s delicious eaten straight from the tub. In the Caucasus, this cheese traditionally is served as the center of the appetizer table sprinkled with somagh (crushed dried sumac, available in the Near Eastern spice section) and surrounded by fresh herbs including opal basil, cilantro, tarragon, mint and chives--all of which you’ll find in Ron’s produce department. The cheese and herbs are eaten rolled in pita or tanur bread. If you want to substitute brinza for French or Italian goat cheese--say in a pasta dish with sun-dried tomatoes--simply soak it in plain water for 30 minutes to an hour and rinse it well.
* Odessa cheese: A low-salt farmer’s-style cheese with a delicate flavor, this makes a fine breakfast on Ron’s Russian rye. Odessa cheese can also be turned into an hors d’oeuvre spread by mashing a cup of the cheese with three tablespoons of finely chopped walnuts, a tablespoon each of snipped fresh dill and parsley and a small clove of pressed garlic. Blend all of this with a little plain yogurt until it is spreadable.
* Prostokvasha: Yogurt lovers will want to know about this Russian-style product made in Skokie, Ill. It has a lovely mellow taste that’s only slightly tart and a thick, but not solid, consistency. Stir in one of the Polish fruit syrups, such as raspberry or plum, to make a breakfast drink.
HERBS, SWEETS AND SEASONINGS
A plate of bread, fresh cheese and herbs are de rigueur on the appetizer table for nearly all Near Eastern and Baltic cuisines. Fresh herbs are served alongside grilled meats and eaten along with them like a salad.
Ron’s has always been known for its bargains on big bunches of flat-leafed parsley, basil, tarragon and coriander. Also look for kotom, a three-inch-long serrated-edged leafy herb that has a taste somewhere between watercress and sorrel. Sorrel here is labeled schav and tender young leek tops go by the name of tarreh.
* Unsweetened pomegranate juice: Used in many Middle Eastern cuisines, pomegranate juice adds a tart, fruity flavor to many stews and sauces. The national dish of Iran, a chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce known as khoresh-e-fesenjan , is a well-known example.
* Albalu: I found big boxes of these dried cherries in front of the dairy case between the deli and produce departments. In Persian restaurants albalu is often served with chicken and basmati rice in a dish called albalu polo. The cherries are also made into a sour cherry syrup, sharbat-e-albalu, used as the base for a refreshing drink.
* Fresh peppers: Most of us associate Anaheim chiles, the long green fairly mild peppers, with Mexican cooking, but similar peppers also show up in many Georgian, Armenian and Turkish dishes. In her book “Classical Turkish Cooking,” Ayla Algar notes that, while the long, green, slightly hot Turkish peppers are unavailable here, Anaheim or even yellow Hungarian peppers are fine substitutes. Such peppers are used abundantly in Turkey as flavorings, salads, pickles and as a garnish for meat dishes, particularly in the summertime. Ron’s usually stocks both varieties.
* Middle Eastern sweets: At the front of the market to the right and also placed rather randomly around the store are several styles of baklava in foil trays. Also look for date-filled choreg gata-- a rich, sweet coffee cake and sesame ring to eat dipped into hot milk.
* Nammura: Close by the Near Eastern sweets is nammura, a firm semolina-and-yogurt pudding flavored with almonds and rosewater. Each tiny square of the dessert is garnished with a whole blanched almond.
In its small (but authentic) Mexican section you will find such things as tamarind and jamaica (a tart hibiscus flower; you know it from Red Zinger tea) concentrates that, when mixed with water and ice, become typical Mexican refrescos.
Several varieties of prepared sauce bases in jars include two brands of mole poblano --the chile-and-chocolate sauce often used with chicken. The green mole is made with serrano chiles, and adobado sauce is composed chiefly of ground seeds and ancho chiles.