Cook's Walk : Around the World in Reseda

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

About 86,000 cars pass the intersection of Sherman Way and Reseda Boulevard every day. It's too bad so few drivers bother to stop. They might be pleasantly surprised.

From the street, it may look like a tacky, pathetic, earthquake-ravaged old business district: vacant buildings, boarded-up store windows, chipped plaster, garishly painted signs, desolate sidewalks. But on the other side of the buildings, a bustling business goes on. Just around back, where there is plenty of free parking, doors are wide open and business is booming. (There just aren't many parking spaces out front, so many merchants have oriented their stores toward the parking lots.)

If the drivers got out of their cars, they'd see a spirited multi-ethnic market life: men lining up to select from 20 kinds of garlicky sausages, grandmothers picking up Irish soda bread and Flintstones birthday cakes at a German bakery, housewives authoritatively selecting exotic fish to be cleaned and fried for dinner. Within a few short blocks, shelves, bins and cases overflow with unusual fruits and vegetables, tongue-searing spices and luxury items you might not find even in Beverly Hills.

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According to the latest census figures, 27 ethnic groups are represented in Reseda. Recent immigrants and refugees speak 67 languages and dialects, from Spanish to Khmer, making for cross-cultural phenomena such as the Iranian restaurant that advertises pizza and Farsi language lessons, or the coffee shop that specializes in meat loaf, farm-style breakfasts and . . . menudo. One resident in six is foreign-born, and many of them have started businesses in Reseda. The Business Watch, a newsletter published by the Reseda Chamber of Commerce, is now published in four languages: English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese.

Downtown Reseda was not always like this. In the 1950s, the business district was the premier shopping area for the West Valley. Sherman Way was dense with wonderful little specialty stores, and most of the shoppers were the white, middle-class residents of the countless housing tracts that had sprung up in the San Fernando Valley after World War II.

The advent of giant shopping malls in outlying areas changed all that. The fashionable stores left Reseda, and their customers followed. By the '80s, downtown Reseda was a hodgepodge of pawnshops, junk stores and auto repair stalls.

At about the same time, the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood started to change. A block of Vietnamese restaurants, markets and boutiques opened. When the Pep Boys auto store burned down, Manny, Moe and Jack rebuilt somewhere else and Miller's Marketplace, an Iranian supermarket, took over the original spot. And not long after that, the Thai-owned Bangluck market opened three blocks away, its shelves dense with Cuban coffee, Indian curry pastes, Chinese noodles, Vietnamese fish sauces, Filipino lumpia wrappers.

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Today the Reseda business district is bursting with ethnic markets and specialty stores full of wonderments and bargains.

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99 Only Store. The 99 Store might not sound--or look--like a promising place to shop for foods, but you might be surprised. In its cramped aisles, among the off-brands and closeouts, paper plates, packets of ramen noodles and Barbie Doll fruit drinks, we found Czech and Swiss preserves, imported Italian pasta and liter-sized bottles of Mexican hot sauce, as well as boxes of that beloved Southern delicacy, Moon Pie.

Amazingly, nothing is more than . . . 99 cents.

18222 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 609-0990.

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Miller's Marketplace. Brothers Danny and Benny Aghaee serve a primarily Iranian clientele in this large, bustling store, to which they moved their business four years ago. In April, Miller's will become even larger and presumably more bustling when it expands into the adjoining building with an American-style grocery.

For now, this is a Middle Eastern supermarket with taped Persian love songs reverberating throughout the store. There is a music shop (cassettes of Iranian pop stars such as Viguen) right inside the door, and close by a video rental store ("El Cid" dubbed in Farsi), with a small selection of Persian books plus shelf-worn copies of Ronald Reagan's autobiography in English. There are also some Persian cooking utensils--the broad-bladed skewers needed for making ground meat shish kebab ( kubideh ), the samovar teapot that Persians adopted from the Russians, and Arab-style brass coffee pots.

Thread your way past the busy cash registers and you find a big island display of cellophane-pack condiments: kebab seasonings, typical Iranian flavorings such as orange and lime peel, sour sumac berries (ground, for sprinkling on chelo kebab, or whole, for flavoring stew) and dried sour cherries. Around the corner, there are Indian teas, very sour Iranian vinegar pickles, rose waters and pomegranate syrups, a wide range of Italian and Greek olive oils, and shelf after shelf of dried beans of all kinds.

Many Near Eastern dairy products can be found, such as yogurt (called mast in Farsi, madzun in Armenian and laban in Arabic), the sour yogurt "cheese" known as lebneh , rich Near Eastern-style clotted cream (known as kaymak or sarshir ) and the bland, uniquely Persian whey concentrate known as kashk , sometimes translated as "farmer's cheese."

"My friends and I came all the way to Reseda to try this brand of cottage cheese," volunteers a shopper with a hint of Brooklyn in her voice. "And the sour cream here is out of this world."

If you're stuck on frozen dinners, Miller's has a good assortment of frozen prepared foods--fried eggplant for the appetizer kashk-o-bademjan (just add kashk !), an Iranian potato frittata, and for good measure, a couple of Ashkenazi Jewish specialties such as challah and blintzes.

Way at the back of the store--which would be the front of the store, of course, if the street entrance were in use--a deli case holds olives, white cheeses, huge dates and figs and an array of pastries and cookies, including lobed, yellow-green cookies made of garbanzo flour ( nan-e nokhodchi ).

There is also a large selection of Iranian, Afghani and Armenian breads . The Iranian breads fall into three categories: barbari , somewhat elongated, with furrows running lengthwise; sangak , rounder and less high; and lavash , like huge, floppy tortillas. The Afghani bread is similar to lavash, but so big it looks as if you could use it for a throw rug ("Great for Pizza!" reads the label). Armenian breads include pouri , which is like a very puffy sort of barbari . For good measure there are about half a dozen varieties of Russian and Polish bread.

The produce section, as long as a bowling alley, is less exotic except for the Iranian herbs, such as lemon-scented basil and fresh fenugreek, an essential ingredient in Persian stews. The meat and fish department, as a sign announces in both English and Farsi, is kosher (glatt and non- glatt) and regularly inspected.

18248 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 345-9222.

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Paradise Produce and Deli. You can find many of the same Near Eastern products as at Miller's--the flower waters and fruit syrups, cultured dairy products, bulk rice, dried fruits and beans--only on a smaller scale.

You also find Arab ingredients, such as all four grades of bulgur wheat (from coarse, for soups, to very fine, for tabbouleh), a milled version of whole wheat ( frikeh) and the rarely seen yarma , a crushed barley used in soups and stews. "It's really hard to get," says Jamal Nehme, the preppy-looking Lebanese-born proprietor. "We've been trying to get it in for the past month and a half."

One shelf is devoted to spices-- zaatar , or ground wild thyme, comes either by itself (green zaatar ) or in the more usual form flavored with sour sumac (red zaatar ) that is traditionally sprinkled on fried eggs. And there's fresh (harvest-dated!) Spanish saffron for $1.49 a gram.

Fragrant sacks of coffee beans and a professional grinder specifically set up for the powdery grind used in Near Eastern coffee sit near the back door. For the store's Latino clientele, there are hot sauces, peppers and loaf sugar ( piloncillo ). In fact, the signs in the front window, which emphasize meats, are in Spanish.

18320 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 708-7831.

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Carniceria Corona X. Except for packages of wooden chopsticks, this market and butcher shop is totally Latino. Not just Mexican, however, though that's how it looks at first, with the pinatas hanging from the ceiling and the big selection of cello-pack herbal teas just inside the front door.

But a little farther inside, past a small freezer full of Salvadoran fruits and vegetables, there's an island of Central American ingredients. Most of them are drinks-- alhuashte (pumpkin seed), chan (which is the same as the Mexican chia seed), cebada (barley), shuco (black corn), chilate (cornmeal, with a little sack of whole allspice to flavor it), ground morro seed, which looks like coffee. There are also spices for the Salvadoran version of tamales and a chocolate sauce for dipping bananas.

Still, most of the shelf products are Mexican: the bottled and canned sauces, the chiles (dried mulato , negro , guajillo , puya , de arbol and habanero are all available in bulk), and spices, including ablandador , which is the Mexican equivalent of Adolph's meat tenderizer.

Virtually every part of the pig is sold here including ears, feet, snout and knuckles. The counter is full of neck bones ( espinazo ), chuck roll ( diez millo ), tripe and other homey cuts.

You'd think that was all there is to this store, except for the appetizing aroma coming from the back corridor. It turns out there's a terrific little taco shop back there, also called Corona. Every morning Narciso Aguirre cooks up a batch of carnitas in a huge copper cauldron. They're usually sold out by early afternoon, but you can count on finding carne asada as a filling for the tacos, burritos and tortas, probably also some tongue or birria or grilled tripe, and plenty of owner Antonio Gonzalez's homemade hot sauces. On weekends there's menudo.

18326 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 345-7029.

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The Dish Factory. It's worth popping in here just to hear Sam Levin's infectuous hee-haw laugh. "I'm too old to work," says the 75-year-old stand-up comic from behind the cash register. "I only help out here."

A branch of the last restaurant supply store left on Los Angeles Street in downtown Los Angeles, the Dish Factory has been open here only six months (one shudders to think what would have happened to all this crockery in the January earthquake). The front of the store is packed with aisle after aisle of restaurant dishware, including plenty of colorful Fiesta.

Farther back in the shop you find the usual restaurant equipment--ranges, commercial refrigerators, mixers, French fry cutters, tortilla crispers, cutting boards, snow cone machines. The home cook may be particularly interested in the cooking thermometers (freezer, deep-fry, grill), the specialized knives and chopping boards.

18336 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 343-8555.

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Preboy Deli. You can pick up a copy of the weekly Moscow News, a Russian cassette or one of several Russian-language humor magazines such as Krokodil (the Russian equivalent of Punch), but the main reason to shop here is the wide selection of garlicky aged sausages. About 20 kinds, mostly aged types in netting such as Hungarian salami, Krakowska, Russian brandwurst and cervelat fill a refrigerator case. Pelmeni (Siberian ravioli) and vareniki , a Ukrainian dumpling with a choice of four stuffings, are in a freezer.

The store carries lots of canned goods too, including carp from the Black Sea, Estonian sturgeon in tomato sauce and squid from Russia. And there's a wide selection of Russian mustards and horseradish--one label shows an eager-looking bear, another a melancholy-looking Mikhail Gorbachev (complete with birthmark). Still another Gorbachev-labeled condiment is a Georgian hot tomato sauce called satsebeli . The label explains: "This product is from the exclusive menu of Kremlin nomenclatura (top bureaucrats). After Gorbachev's perestroika it became available in the U.S.A. It is like ketchup with knockout."

In the dairy case, red packages of European-style Plugra butter sit between Danish cream cheese made from 65% cream and Russian country-style yogurts and farmer cheeses. There are also plenty of sweets for nibbling with your glass of tea--candies and cookies, including chocolate-covered gingerbread and cashew crunch (kosher cashew crunch, in fact), and zeefer , a sort of fluted marshmallow available plain, pink or frosted in chocolate.

18416 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 881-7606.

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West of Reseda Boulevard, the businesses are more likely to be Asian than Latino or Near Eastern (or Russian). We find restaurants such as E.T. (Excellent Taste) Chinese Food, Tuyet Anh noodle shop, and Koun Ky Chinese Restaurant ("Chinese Food to Go or Din (sic) In")--where everything is under a dollar.

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Valley Produce. After a couple of foodless blocks, past the Reseda Baptist Church where services are in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, a true phenomenon appears: Valley Produce. Broad and shallow (it's located in a former Kinney's shoe store), the market is crammed with produce and ethnic foods. Nine cash registers ring all day long; the parking lot is jammed; street parking is a hassle for blocks in either direction.

Customers complain about the crowding, the careening shopping carts and the narrow aisles, but they keep on returning. The reasons are simple: huge selection and very low prices. That combination brings in probably the most polyglot clientele in the Valley. You can hear customers speaking Spanish, Russian, Persian, Punjabi, Armenian, Chinese, Korean and most of the Southeast Asian languages. One man thumps cucumbers, the tiny ones perfect for pickling; another furiously shakes a cantalope. At the height of pistachio season, young mothers scoop up the fresh green nuts to take home for snacking.

You can spend hours examining these shelves and will find just about anything you need: Indian chutneys, Mexican sauces, French cookies, Iranian pickles, olives from Lebanon, five kinds of feta and six flavors of halva. In the deli case, the Armenian soujouk sausage sits right next to the Italian prosciutto.

18820 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 609-1955.

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Ba Le. Working your way back toward Reseda Boulevard on the north side of Sherman Way, you'll notice this Vietnamese submarine sandwich shop, which is actually part of a San Jose-based fast-food franchise. The woman behind the counter generously piles on cold cuts, wafer-thin slices of French-style ham and sliced head cheese. Try the $2 combination sandwich, which includes a double serving of meat. There are some exotic soft drinks, such as canned pennywort drink, which tastes a little like clover.

18625 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 342-9380.

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Freedom Bakery. If you're expecting to see big gooey cakes, this place might not be your bag. The sign in Farsi in the window reads "Fresh Barbari Bread," and that's the specialty here. People drive in from as far as Santa Monica just for Sadek Momayezi's whole-wheat and white barbari flatbreads.

This cramped little shop carries several other Iranian breads and thick walnut-stuffed kolucheh cookies, plus a few other baked goods from other shops. There are also nuts, dried fruit, and the usual Iranian spices and flavored waters and syrups on the shelves.

18601-E Sherman Way, Reseda (818) 757-7101.

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El Molino Market holds a couple of surprises. One is that this 7-year-old market and carniceria is owned by a Spanish-speaking Korean. Another is the amazing collection of Peruvian goods. Obviously, owner Kang Hyun Lee knows his way around chanca , the Peruvian equivalent of Corn Nuts (the store stocks chancas made from three varieties of corn).

Other Peruvian ingredients include bags of maiz morado , with its glamorous, deep-purple kernels, and the drink mix made from it ( maza morada ), and quinoa, canary beans, papa seca (little rock-hard granules of dried potato used in stews--there's a recipe on the package) and bottled huacatay herb, which tastes like a cross between mint, spinach and kerosene. There are two varieties of bottled Peruvian chiles, available either whole or in paste form: The rocoto is very hot, the aji amarillo is a bright-yellow chile that tastes like a slightly hot bell and paprika pepper. You can get pickled oca , a potato-like Peruvian tuber. Banana-flavored Inca Kola is in the refrigerator case.

The well-stocked butcher counter stretches along the back wall, with chorizo and pigs' feet as well as the usual cuts of chicken, pork and beef. There are three sizes of shrimp and ready-made ceviche in an adjacent seafood counter.

One of the most interesting displays is to the left of the cash register: a hodgepodge of Mexican candies, ready-to-use tomato pulp, dried mango on a stick, sour snacks and Tama-Roca, which is tamarind paste molded onto a straw--with or without red pepper--together with bubblegum and and Gummi bears.

18601-B&C; Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 881-0737.

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The Produce Club. Produce Club shoppers are serious about their rice. The first thing you see when you enter from the parking lot is a blackboard with the latest prices of nine varieties. Among the rarities is Lal Qilla-brand aged basmati: $43.99 for a 44-pound burlap sack.

A table of sale items has been cannily set up opposite the blackboard: dates, sesame cookies, date-stuffed butter cookies, three kinds of Armenian gata bread.

If you need the tart dried barberries (zereshk) used in Persian pilafs, this is the place to come. They're available not only in bags but in bulk--and for a good price: $7.99 a pound. Three sizes of bulgur are available, as are favas in the pod, peeled or split. You can also get toasted vermicelli (used in reshte polo , a pilaf), rice flour and wheat starch.

There is a kosher butcher shop (glatt and non- glatt) in the back, displaying whitefish, chicken, ground beef and steaks.

Considering the name of the store, the produce is a little disappointing, just the usual plus fenugreek greens. But we did stock up on some beautiful red and yellow bell peppers for 69 cents a pound.

18525 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 345-9441.

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Reseda Bakery. Anyone who needs a birthday cake in a hurry knows to call George Schneider. He can't say no to anyone, not even the little boy who demanded a birthday cake shaped like giant blue fly.

Unlike most bakeries, Reseda doesn't have any ready-frosted cakes for people who didn't think ahead to order. Instead, it offers a while-you-wait service. Schneider bakes extra cakes each morning and can assemble and frost one in 10 minutes to half an hour (the blue fly model, however, had to be ordered ahead). Decorated cakes account for 90% of the store's business.

By far the oldest ethnic food store in the neighborhood (there's been a German bakery here for nearly 50 years), it's been in Schneider's hands for 28 years. Old World specialties include black and rye breads, apple strudel, Stollen and Pfeffernusse.

There are a few New World specialties too. Schneider will dye sandwich loaves any color to order. And he will bake a seven-foot loaf for a giant submarine sandwich.

18521 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 345-8158.

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Bangluck Market. The fourth branch of the well-known, hectic Thai supermarket chain, Reseda Bangluck has the same high-quality produce, exotic seafood and fiery curries as the other stores.

The overwhelming profusion begins as you set foot in the back door and notice 19 kinds of Asian beef jerkies (and two pork) on display, and the small Asian pharmacy/toiletries counter, where you can also buy French-roasted coffee beans as well as boxing liniment.

Then you're on your own. Do you want to explore the aisles of pickles--pickled makok , pickled three-taste ma den and the rest? Or would you rather shop for ground pork crackling (one label shows a young slacker of a pig, slouching against a lamp post and whistling nonchalantly)?

What you find here is a huge marketplace of Asian goods--Vietnamese fish sauces, Chinese noodles, Thai vegetables, Japanese sushi supplies. The meat, poultry and fish sections are extensive too. There's edible blood by the pint (beef or pork) for making blood sausage, live fish in tanks, and dead fish in icy bins (both can be bought, cleaned and deep-fried to order) and frozen fish--even frozen freshwater prawns the size of small lobsters.

There's a cookware section upstairs, still recovering from the earthquake. Here you can pick up rice steamers, French cafe filtre makers, and everyday dinnerware.

7235 Reseda Blvd., Reseda. (818) 708-0333.

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Linda Rae's. Narrow, deep and stacked to the ceiling, this closet-size second-hand store is the place to score Bauer bowls, Bakelite-handled flatware, or Mickey Mouse cookie jars. There are used cookbooks, glassware and deep pots, just the right size to make enough stock to last the winter. Things move in and out of here fast, so it's best to check in regularly.

7242 1/2 Reseda Blvd., Reseda. (818) 343-3926 .

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The Bookie Joint. The first thing to think about before entering this used-book shop is depositing enough money in the parking meter. You can easily lose track of time in this wonderful dark jumble. There's an entire section devoted to used cookbooks. If you want to see how times have changed, check out "Peggy Put the Kettle On: Recipes and Entertainment Ideas for Young Wives." There are some serious cookbooks too. We found a 1943 edition of "The Boston Cooking School Cookbook," by F.M. Farmer for $40 and the "Rumford Complete Cookbook," for $7. And until we got there, there was a wonderful first edition of Helen Evans Brown and James Beard's "The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery."

7246 Reseda Blvd., Reseda. (818) 343-1055.

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Sri Lankan Delight. This store is still relatively new to Reseda, and owners Bishan Seneviratne, Roshan De Silva and Christopher Perrera are dependent on shipments from Sri Lanka, so the supply is erratic. Still, you'll find interesting curries, various unusual chutneys, mixes for making Sri Lankan flat breads, and concentrated paste for making mulligatawny soup. And if you're planning on getting a pedicure anytime soon, there's a whole stack of rubber thongs.

7455-C Reseda Blvd., Reseda (818) 774-1237.

* Cover design by TRACY CROWE.

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