You can buy Thai green curry sauce at Trader Joe’s, rice noodles at Raley’s and salsa at Safeway. But if you want to soak in the feeling of Thailand or China or Mexico while you shop, there’s only one way to do it: Head to an ethnic market.
In the melting pot that is Sacramento, it isn’t hard to do. They’re everywhere, from the Asian markets that line Stockton Boulevard to the Korean cluster in Rancho Cordova to the Mexican and Indian markets dotting Northgate Boulevard. Even Roseville’s got a few.
Other good reasons to take the road less traveled: They’re havens for hard-to-find ingredients. And prices are often cheap—dirt cheap. One friend who recently tried her hand at Thai cooking still can’t get over her savings at Wing Wa Seafood Supermarket, an old war horse on Stockton Boulevard. “I bought broad rice noodles, fish sauce, fresh limes, peanuts, shrimp powder, really fresh bean sprouts and green onions for something like 6 bucks and some change!” she burbles. (And she’s not one to burble.)
New to the global grocery game? No worries. We’ve assembled a list of some of the area’s best markets—and we do emphasize “some”: In this rambling and ever-expanding region, the number of ethnic markets is probably somewhere near 100 (just a wild stab).
So get shopping!
* La Superior Mercado Y Carniceria
2210 Northgate Blvd., Sacramento
People sing in the aisles at La Superior, and why not? Life is a fiesta here, from the lively mariachi music to the boldly colored cakes that beckon you to press your nose against the glass at the panaderia. You’ll also be impressed by the very orderly meat and seafood counter, with Spanish-English translations on every item; there’s a taqueria with takeout favorites, too. You’ll see Mexican specialties such as pozole and menudo. But even if your Mexican food vocabulary stops at Taco Bell, you’ll have a good time here because it’s just a “feel good” kind of place.
Chefs who shop here: Pretty much everyone, though some frequent the Stockton Boulevard location. Caterer Arturo Vargas of Taste for the Senses calls their crema fresca and housemade chorizo “the best”; he also stops in for jicamas and mangos, black beans and serrano chilies. Paulette Bruce, owner of the cooking-class company Good Eats, says she loves the dried Mexican chilies and spices, nopales, tomatillos, and oxtails for stew. But her No. 1 reason for visiting? The music.
Taste test: A single-size serving of flan from the panaderia. I’ve always been a sucker for the rich, custardy stuff, and this one, with its unusually delicate and nuanced caramel topping, is worth the trip. Really. $3.49 for a big fat wedge, enough for two hungry people.
* Kaveri Indian Grocery
1148 Fulton Ave., Sacramento
You may not bump into the cast of Slumdog Millionaire here, but that’s OK: The tantalizing aroma of Indian spices has plenty of star power. True, the place has a somewhat, um, underwhelming exterior. But once inside, your nose will twitch—in a happy way—to the tune of curries and cumin and cardamom, and suddenly you’ll wonder if you’ve got what it takes to make mutter paneer or chicken vindaloo. The good news is they’ve got everything you’d need to pull it off, from garam masala to paneer cheese. The even better news is they probably carry a heat-and-eat version of whatever you want, and that’s way less intimidating.
What you’ll find here: Fun snacks with names like Madras Mix; Indian flours and rices; spices galore; dried beans and peas; dipping sauces and chutneys. My personal favorite: the frozen food section, where you can find all those incredible Indian breads, from onion kulcha to paratha and naan.
Taste test: Heat-and-eat mutter paneer: tender peas and cottage cheese cubes in a mild curry sauce. The Boyfriend and I served it over basmati rice for lunch one day when we’d run out of turkey for sandwiches, and found ourselves swooning. The price also is swoon-worthy: only $1.99 for a 10.5-ounce package—probably half what you’d pay for something similar in a mainstream grocery store. Plus, knowing it comes from New Delhi makes it feel more like the real deal. Brand: Kohinoor
* Oto’s Marketplace
4990 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento
If you don’t slip and fall on the superpolished floors—the password for this place is clean—you’ll have a grand time at Oto’s Marketplace, a royal palace for all things Japanese. But if you’re one of those easily overwhelmed types, you’d better go in with a list: The sheer scope of the place is staggering. (They must have 50 kinds of sake, for starters.) With its picture-perfect produce section, ridiculous quantities of rice, vinegars, soy sauces, sushi ingredients, miso and dried seaweed—not to mention the cookware to make it all happen—it’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t find everything you need, and then some, to whip up an authentic Japanese meal. But you may be so tired after looking at it all that you just grab a few items from the sushi counter and slither home.
Chefs who shop here: Dionisio Esperas, a cooking instructor and co-owner of A Healthy Kitchen catering company, says Oto’s is where he goes for high-quality fish and Japanese products he can’t find elsewhere, such as unusual misos and soy sauces. He also recommends the sushi and the bento boxes. “For around $6, you can get some very good teriyaki chicken with rice,” he says. Sometimes, even the pros need a break.
Taste test: “Let’s Party,” a snack food of tiny dried sardines, flatfish and shrimp seasoned with sugar and salt; it’s like a Japanese version of Chex Party Mix. The shrimp are crunchy and not bad tasting, but I almost broke a tooth trying to bite into a rock-hard sardine. Try putting a bowl of these out at your next party. $3.39 for a 1.8-ounce package.
* Mediterranean Market
1547 Fulton Ave., Sacramento
This is where you go when you’re tired of Greek feta and want to try the Turkish kind, taste olives from far-flung places (Jordan, perhaps?) or buy an 8-pound jar of sesame tahini for your next hummus party. Then trot your bushel of goodies to the checkout counter and try and guess what language the clerk is speaking. (It’s Arabic. I asked.) All of this halfway down Fulton Avenue. Who knew?
Chefs who shop here: Caterer Joan Leineke calls this market “fabulous”; a recent shopping list included Turkish red pepper paste, halloumi cheese, bastirma (dried beef), sumac and yogurt. The Supper Club’s Matt Woolston shops there for spices, olives and feta.
Taste test: Date Maamoul, cookies from Saudi Arabia “with selected Saudi dates.” These soft, round cookies, dense with a date filling, are buttery good. Cheap, too: only $2.99 for a 320-gram (3/4 pound) box. Brand: Alkaramah
* SF Supermarket
6930 65th St., Sacramento
Here, chickens hang upside down on ropes, striped pig’s ears and pork stomach intestines are for sale, and the faint smell of fish floats through the air. But if you want to take a whirlwind culinary tour of all things Asian, this is the place, with its mix of goods from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, China, Laos and the Philippines. You’ll find countless varieties of bok choy and a sea of soy sauces. But the biggest draw is the seafood counter, where folks flock to get fresh fish fried up for free. For those who can’t get past the dead stare of fish eyes, the real value of the store is its low, low prices and foodie fascination factor.
Chefs who shop here: Lemon Grass’ Mai Pham, who says it’s “good for people who are adventurous and want to see everything.” That about sums it up.
Taste test: OK, so I chickened out and passed on the pork feet. Instead, I picked up a package of seaweed-wrapped rice crackers. Said The Boyfriend, “It’s like taking sheets of seaweed from a sushi bar and chewing on it.” But it’s cheap: $1.79 for a 3-ounce bag. Brand: JFC International Inc.
* Red Star International Groceries
East Parkway, Sacramento
The United Nations of grocery stores, Red Star takes you on an international trip so rich that by the time you’ve made the tour, you won’t give a whit about their slightly dusty shelves. As I checked out the jerk seasoning and Red Stripe beer, two shoppers huddled nearby, their voices rising and falling in an unmistakably Jamaican lilt. A few aisles over, a woman chatted animatedly on her cell phone in Spanish. It’s that cross-cultural mingling that makes Red Star such an exotic and alluring animal, and if you’re a foodie, you probably could spend hours here. I mean, fufu flour from Africa? Come on.
What you’ll find here: A little something from almost everywhere: Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Vietnam, Argentina and who knows where else. If that’s not international enough for you, IHOP is just a few doors down.
* German Deli
Auburn Blvd., Sacramento
If you’re jonesing for bratwurst and beer, this is your place. More than a deli—that’s why my German buddy Oliver shops here from time to time—this smallish, well-kept shop carries every-thing from German magazines to Bavarian-style mustards, German streusel cake mix and Austrian coffee. Wurst is a popular suffix here (knackwurst, liverwurst, et al.), and there’s a preponderance of pickled things in jars, like beets and veggies (and, yes, pickles). Sauerkraut juice? They’ve got it.
What you’ll find here: Preserves, cookies and coffees from Germany and Austria, sauerkraut galore, little cans of fish (herring, especially), imported beer and wine, Bavarian-style mustards and a lot of marzipan. At the deli, all the usual suspects (sausages, cheeses), plus items like bologna with pistachio.
Taste test: Rotkohl, braised red cabbage and apples. It looks like red sauerkraut but is milder and sweeter, and quite good. $5.95 for a 32-ounce jar. Brand: Krüegerman
* Good Neighbor European Deli & Market
5111 College Oak Drive,Sacramento
This midsize suburban store is a favorite with many of the region’s Eastern European immigrants. Unless you speak the language, don’t expect to understand everything you see here: English translations are lacking on a number of products. (Who knows what lurks inside those individually wrapped chocolates?) For the most part, though, there’s nothing much here you haven’t already seen in mainstream America, from the dark Russian breads to pirogi and feta (though theirs is Bulgarian).
What you’ll find here: Nice deli with imported sausages and salamis, cheeses and smoked fish; freshly baked Russian breads; preserves in large tubs; grains, cookies, chocolates, teas and coffees; a small produce department and a plethora of pirogi.
10971 Olson Drive, Rancho Cordova
Breezing into this glossy, massive mega-market, you’ll first stumble upon Koreana Video, which—along with the store name—would have you think the place is all-Korean, all the time. Then you lurch into the produce department and spot tomatillos and nopalitos, and you start wondering if you’re in the wrong store. Nope. Eventually, you’ll find the red pepper paste and kimchi and salted shrimp—all Korean staples. And just when you think you’ve got the place all figured out, you’ll spot an aisle labeled “American Grocery,” which features a prominent display of Spam.
What you’ll find here: Just about everything. Random notes I scribbled: fresh water chestnuts, lotus root, Asian noodles, tons of tofu, salted kelp and seaweed, shredded squid, cuttlefish, salsas, fresh tortillas, a huge selection of teas, more seaweed, tamarind soda from Mexico, juices from Thailand, frozen duck feet, black goat, dried sweet potato trunk . . . OK, I’ll stop now.
. . . and 10 more to try
Arian del Mart, 9663 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento
Small, beautifully kept store specializing in Iranian/Persian imports, including a lovely pastry/candy counter.
Asian Food Center/Sunh Fish, 1301 Broadway, Sacramento
Two stores in one, and a longtime favorite with chefs and downtowners; cooking instructor Paulette Bruce goes for the live crabs and lobsters.
Desi Bazaar, 8121 Madison Ave., Fair Oaks
One of many Indian markets in the region, favored by caterer Joan Leineke because it’s close to home and has everything she needs, from curry leaves to “fabulous” frozen Indian breads and spices.
Europa Foods, 3049 W. Capitol Ave., West Sacramento
Pleasant market with ample selection of Russian foods, but don’t cross over to the produce section without paying for your goodies first: They’re two separate operations (but under one roof).
La Hacienda Super Mercado, 4604 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento
Where chef Arturo Vargas shops for Mexican goods when he’s not at La Superior.
Morant’s Old-Fashioned Sausage Kitchen, 5001 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento
Reputed to have the best German sausages in town—all of them housemade.
Naroe’s Bakery & Deli, 6006 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael
Insiders say Naroe’s makes the best European-style breads in town. “Go there in the morning when the bread is still hot,” advises The Supper Club’s Matt Woolston. “Try the barbary bread—it looks like a surfboard.”
Osaka-Ya, 2215 10th St., Sacramento
Tiny Japanese market favored by chef/cooking instructor Dionisio Esperas, especially for the Japanese pastries and thin-sliced beef used for making shabu-shabu.
Seafood City Supermarket, 6051 Mack Road, Sacramento
Huge superstore, said to be one of the area’s best for Filipino products.
Vinh Phat Market, 6105 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento
Outstanding produce is one of the reasons people keep coming back to this oldie-but-goodie Asian market, a favorite of Mai Pham’s.
For an expanded list of ethnic supermarkets, see our online directory