Advertisement
Share

THE RIGHT STUFF : From Imported Cheeses to <i> Halal</i> Meats, There’s a Market for Everything Here

<i> Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The ever-changing demographic of Orange County has brought with it an explosion of ethnic awareness. One way to get acquainted with other cultures is through the kitchen. After experiencing an exotic dish at a restaurant, there is often the urge to reproduce it at home, something best accomplished after a visit to one of our many ethnic specialty markets.

This is only a smattering of what is out there, but it is a good cross-section. A more in-depth look at ethnic markets crops up periodically in the Thursday Food section, whenever Linda Burum’s pieces are featured. Burum, author of “A Guide To Ethnic Foods in Los Angeles” (Harper Perennial, $11), knows more about markets than anyone I’ve met.

In terms of pure exotica, nothing beats an Asian entry like the Bolsa Supermarket in Westminster’s Little Saigon, which caters to both the Chinese and Vietnamese community. On a street lined with huge food emporia like Little Saigon Supermarket, Viet Hoa and others, this is my favorite. Nowhere else is it more apparent how the foods of those regions differ from our own products.

First off, there is a greater emphasis on freshness. You’ll find few processed foods in here, save the pickled and sweetened items used to enhance the Asian table. Second, there is a mind-numbing array of foods that we simply do not use in Western cooking. One way to familiarize yourself with these foods is to grab a copy of “Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients” (William Morrow, $22.95). Another way is to mill around in here, keeping your eyes, ears, and especially your nose, open.

Advertisement

Begin a journey to this market in the huge produce section, where dozens of fruits and vegetables unseen in most Western markets sit on display alongside the more familiar ones. There are piles of fresh water chestnuts, green tamarind, bushels of pea shoots, bins of thick-skinned pomelos (similar to a grapefruit, only sweeter), betel leaves and dozens of fragrant herbs.

From there, walk back to the enormous fish department, perhaps the biggest in the county, where live shellfish tanks stocked with Manila clams, baby lobster, crab and much more are flanked by whole tilapia, carp, stripers and an endless array of shrimps, laid out, eyes open, in row after row.

Several aisles are devoted to fish sauces and salted condiments that the south Asian table cannot do without: nuoc mam, chili sauces, oyster sauce, flavored soys--a staggering inventory. There are noodles, noodles and more noodles, fashioned out of rice flour, wheat, even beans, most of them made by local factories.

In the front of the store are the rices, sold mostly in bulk packages of either 25 or 50 pounds (expect to pay about $10 for 25 pounds, depending on the brand and quality).

Finally, there is a huge housewares section where cooking equipment, plates, rice bowls and chop sticks are sold. In short, everything you’ll need to cook a first-class Asian dinner.

Bolsa Supermarket, 9550 Bolsa Ave., Westminster. (714) 839-8002. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

*

Pascal and Mimi Olhats of Pascal restaurant took a calculated risk opening Pascal Epicerie and Wine, a small French market housed in a free-standing building adjacent to the couple’s restaurant. An epicerie is, in Pascal’s own words, “a grocery store for spices, cheeses, canned foods.” What the Olhatses have opened is really more of an epicerie fine , adding house-made charcuterie, pastry, fine wines. Suffice to say that there is nothing else like it in Orange County.

Advertisement

This is a rustic, decidedly upscale place, done in the earthy colors of a Mediterranean village, complete with slate floor, a wine cellar and tasting tables. Don’t bother looking for the products sold here in Vons or Lucky. Many of these foods are prepared on the premises in a large rear kitchen: cooking aids such as basic stocks; pates like a smooth duck terrine, creamy chicken liver mousse or peasanty beef daube; packaged dinners; homemade croissants and pastries; great sandwiches like grilled lamb with feta.

Pascal says it is his restaurant customers who convinced him to open this type of shop, but he confided that he has already pulled in lots of business from the local French community. There are jams, vinegars and teas from the famous Fauchon in Paris, breads are trucked in daily from La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Cheeses, which often vary greatly in terms of ripeness, are decidedly French--classics such as Epoisse, Reblochon and St. Marcellin (tiny rounds of goat cheese suspended in herbed olive oil) and the more familiar Brie and Camembert.

One of the features that Pascal is most proud of is his ever-changing array of takeout cooked dinners, sold at $7.95. This is a chance to taste signature dishes from the restaurant--sea bass with thyme crust, a rich seafood stew and others--in your own home.

Wines are another draw here, and moderate price is again the selling point. In the totally separate wine room, wines from all over France are displayed. The majority of the inventory is kept in a temperature-controlled cellar, but the entire inventory is displayed in an inventive wooden rack, which runs around the room’s perimeter. Among good buys are a ’90 Fonsalette for $19.90, a crisp Sancerre for $10.50 and the venerable La Vielle Ferme red from Provence, $7.

Advertisement

Pascal Epicerie and Wine, 1000 Bristol St., Newport Beach. (714) 261-9041. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday.

*

What a feast is Al Tayebat, an Anaheim market whose name means “wonderful tastes” in Arabic.

Calling this colorful, boisterous market “stocked” would be a case of classic understatement. Walking in, you get a full dose of the sights, sounds and smells of the Middle East. The perfumes of coffee, coriander and olives hit you first, then the Arabic music. It’s dizzying for a first-time visitor, but the women, many in shawls with children in tow, don’t appear the least bit fazed. They are too busy packing up their carts with the bountiful foods of their region.

Advertisement

One side of the market contains row after row of rainbow-colored produce, peppers, eggplant, fresh herbs, tomatoes bursting with ripeness. In the rear, there is a counter for halal meat (butchered according to Islamic law) where the market’s butchers prepare homemade sausages called ma’ani and the cracked bulgur wheat and ground lamb dish known as kibbeh .

Proprietor Sami Khouraki is proud of the wide variety of dry goods necessary for the preparation of a good Middle Eastern meal. There are large burlap bags of fragrant basmati rice, bulgur and semolina wheats, and fresh spices such as cumin, allspice and cardamom, vital to the home cooks who shop here.

Gallon cans of imported olive oil are stacked nearly to the ceiling, exotic sounding brand names such as Middle East, Indo-European and Al Wazir. There are long, flat loaves of fresh Afghani bread, the sesame confection halwa (halava in English), dried apricots imported from Turkey, honeys, pistachios, even a wide selection of European candies and specialty items.

“My customers are a sophisticated lot from all over the Middle East,” Khouraki says, “and they are used to products from Europe as well as from their own countries.”

Advertisement

Should you find the prospect of confronting so many unfamiliar foodstuffs daunting, head for the cookware and cookbook aisle in this store. Al Tayebat sells several Lebanese and Middle Eastern cookbooks, as well as the various cooking implements a fledgling Middle Eastern cook needs to get started.

Al Tayebat, 1217 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim. (714) 520-4723. Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday.

*

From the robust tastes of the Middle East we go to the delicate, almost ethereal flavors of Japan.

Advertisement

Ebisu Market is part of a family business started 10 years ago by Kazuto Takeda. The market has expanded into a bakery, ramen (Japanese noodles, eaten in soup) shop and soon-to-be-opened Japanese spaghetti parlor.

The heart and soul of any Japanese market is the fish counter; because many Japanese people fancy raw fish, the quality of the fish sold has to be near perfect. Ebisu’s fish counter features a wood slat board written in the Japanese syllabary called hiragana , just as you will see in a Little Tokyo sushi bar. But not to worry, the English names are right there, in small print next to the fish themselves. The fine selection includes gorgeous chunks of yellowtail, whole pompano, flounder and assorted exotica. It’s as impressive as you’ll find anywhere in the county.

The market is further notable for fine produce such as gobo (burdock root); small, flavorful Japanese eggplant; pumpkin; Japanese sugar potatoes; various seaweeds; dried and pickled roots; mushrooms and everything necessary to make a good Japanese dashi , the soup stock that most Japanese dishes depend on. Of course there is plenty of Japanese rice, and the rice cookers that you’ll need to prepare it properly. Takeda’s son Joe has a special line of tuna jerky made especially for him.

You’ll also find a huge inventory of sakes; Japanese beers such as my favorite, Ichiban Shibori from Kirin; teas, such as the caffeine-free hojicha and the ubiquitous green tea; a whole aisle of the rice crackers called senbei , and various other Japanese products, ranging from bento box lunches to ceramic chopstick rests. Should you get uncontrollably hungry during all this, there is, surprise, a take-out sushi counter, back of the market.

Advertisement

Ebisu Market, 18930-40 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. (714) 962-2108. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

*

Sydney and Mario Silvi opened Al Dente 11 years back, more out of necessity than ambition. When it comes to the staples of Italian cooking, this crowded but elegant Los Alamitos market has nearly all bases covered.

You’ll gasp, as I did, when you see just how complete a market it is. The starting point has to be the pasta section, where pastas in undreamed of size, shape and color reside. The Silvis use five different companies to get the largest variety of cuts, anything from al carciofo --artichoke in the dough--to patrician air-dried pastas in brown paper sacks that are two to three times more expensive than the cellophane-packaged versions.

Advertisement

Go to the market’s huge, glassed-in deli counter for salumeria (cold cuts and sausages) and cheeses. Al Dente sells more than 15 different types of salamis (purveyed locally or in Canada), prosciutto from San Daniele in Italy’s Friuli province (which aficionados consider the world’s finest), and the best imported Parmigiano for livening up that pasta.

There are chefs in the rear kitchen who make lasagnas, stuffed shells and sauces for your pasta, tonno (tuna), pesto, Bolognese, Arrabbiata and more sold at $4.95 for a half pint. The condiment section contains flavored vinegars; a wondrous selection of nut oils; specialty items such as Agrumata, olive oil perfumed with orange rind and tomatoes in ways you didn’t know existed; pickled garlic; fancy mustards, you name it.

Naturally there are breads, in this case brought in from a Sun Valley bakery called Pane Pane that Mrs. Silvi swears is the best around. The breads, by the way, have zero fat, dairy products or sugar.

The back room is the most crowded part of the market, with wines, candies, aprons, place mats, coffees. There is a great selection of top-drawer Chiantis, Brunellos and Barolos, as well as modest wines at one-fifth the price of the big hitters.

Advertisement

Italians are big on their candies, and the inventory peaks around Easter. Look for chocolates such as hazelnut-filled Baci (kisses) from Perugia, the coated nougat called torrone , Amaretti cookies, biscotti for dipping in coffee. Coffee? No problem. Al Dente sells coffees from Illy, Pasquini and other well-known coffee makers, not to mention espresso pots and complicated looking gadgets fitted with milk steamers.

Mmmm, mmm. Make sure your trunk is empty before you head out.

Al Dente, 11092 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos. (310) 698-1124. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Closed Monday.

*

Advertisement

The cooking of Mexico has long been popular here, and the advent of large chains such as Viva and Tianguis, often featuring comals (griddles) that churn out fresh tortillas like an assembly line, make shopping for Mexican foods easier than ever.

I still prefer the small, neighborhood markets for this kind of shopping, places such as El Toro in Santa Ana. El Toro has wonderful cuts of meats--marinated steak, oxtail, pig’s knuckles, honeycomb tripe, chorizo--and a homey feeling that I find comforting. Where else would you find pinatas suspended from the ceiling, hear mariachis blaring from oversized speakers, and be able to munch on cajetas de leche (milk fudge) or calabasas (candied pumpkin) as you shop?

Mexicans tend to buy their grains and legumes in bulk, and most of the beans, rices and corn products sit in huge rear bins, waiting for shoppers to scoop them up into plastic bags. I counted nearly a dozen types of fresh chilies--among others, chipotles, poblanos, anchos and guajillos-- in here, and at least two dozen more varieties dried and packaged in four-ounce plastic bags. Of course there is handsome produce such as avocados, jicamas, papayas and a wide selection of leafy vegetables.

Perhaps it would be more convenient, even less expensive, to shop in the big bright Mexican supermarket chains. But I don’t care.

Advertisement

The whole point of shopping ethnic, for me, is to absorb a little of the true essence of a culture. That’s what makes an experience such as this worthwhile and what makes the food on the table taste special.

El Toro, 1340 W. 1st St., Santa Ana. (714) 836-1393. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.


Advertisement