Clustered along the vast commercial stretch of South Academy Boulevard are a growing number of Asian markets, pockets of tradition along a soulless stretch of road. These family-owned grocers generally are small and packed to the rafters with foods, sundries, condiments and assorted fare familiar and necessary to what seems to be a predominantly Asian clientele. In a perfect world, these markets would attract a variety of adventurous shoppers on the lookout for a novel experience or a stupendous meal.
Many of these markets use the majority of their shelf space for dried and canned goods. Their intimidating freezers are stocked with foods labeled in half a dozen languages; most importers are required to list at least the ingredients in English. The proprietors take great care to label in English as well.
Although some carry prepared dishes, none of the markets have dining spaces, so be prepared to haul your feast elsewhere.
Thai Orchid Market is a jam-packed mini-mecca of Thai and pan-Asian food. It's known for carrying live crab and fresh fish every Wednesday, the leftovers of which then are moved to huge freezers. While the store reflects the notoriously seafood-intense Thai diet, it also offers an assortment of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese foods, including a bevy of dry soup and noodle mixes, pickled everything and, most notably, hot chili-steeped bean curd that is absurdly delicious eaten straight from the jar. Exponentially less enjoyable are the so-called clam crackers, which turn out to be dried baby clams, undeniably crispy but beastly.
Thai Orchid also stocks a variety of fun frozen treats, including black bean sweets and green tea and jasmine ice cream, which vie for freezer space with the vast selections of fish. These esoteric treats are almost as cool as the unfamiliar beverages, such as sweet cinnamon soda and aloe juice with unannounced and surprising beads of aloe vera gel.
Seoul Market has the necessary pan-Asian mixes, sauces, frozen and snack foods, but also carries a wider array of Korean foods, including house-made kimchee and dried cuttlefish, similar to a very spicy Korean fish jerky. (Despite initial skepticism, guests at a recent barbecue passed over dill dip and crudits to devour the cuttlefish.)
A long, crowded shelf of cooking utensils and supplies at Seoul Market barely supports an impressive arrangement of woks, steamers, frying pans, rice cookers, knives and whisks and spoons. For less than $20, an enormous stone mortar and pestle is a steal.
Seoul's small array of fresh foods includes hard-to-find strains of cabbage and teensy fresh quail eggs. The packaging of one Korean brand of squid chips, crunchy little tentacle-shaped snacks, features a squid with decidedly coquettish eyelashes and a listing of ingredients that employs the words "squid" and "peanut" in exciting new syntactic ways.
Saigon Market, not the biggest but arguably the best equipped of the three stores, carries the widest variety of fresh vegetables: banana leaves, massive stalks of fresh lemongrass, head-sized bundles of cilantro, fresh chilies, ginger and cabbage, a lot of it lovingly parceled in-store. Live crab and tilapia -- some of which scuttle and snap at shoppers -- are delivered weekly.
The freezer section here is smaller, but holds a wider range of fresh fish and meats, as well as vegetable and pork bun and gyoza (a Japanese version of Chinese pot stickers). Pan-fried or simply heated in the microwave and served with a traditional tamari sauce, these please even querulous Westerners.
Saigon also carries the most exciting selection of prepared foods, arranged teasingly at the checkout counter. Alongside fresh duck and noodle bowls are glorious summer rolls, stuffed with strips of cold duck, noodles, cucumber, cilantro and shrimp. The accompanying creamy, faintly piquant peanut sauce ranks among the best in the city.
Operated and staffed largely by friendly, helpful folks who will explain what nu oc mam pha san is -- and why you should avoid spilling it on your wife -- these grocers are a boon to gustatory life in the Springs.
Even with red pepper tuna, chewy potato noodles, a bright purple Filipino yam concoction called ube halaya, sauces, pickles and citronelle stocking the cupboards and fridge, we're bound to return to these and many other international markets popping up around town.
-- Aaron Retka