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Exploring Asian Grocers in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California: A few weeks ago, the highly-anticipated cookbook, The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island, by Cathy Erway, was delivered to my (RV) door. As you probably know, we lived in Taiwan for several years when Lisa was very young.

The thing we miss most about living in Taiwan is the live-in housekeeper food. Never have we enjoyed such delicious food - day in and day out - from the fanciest Chinese banquets to 4-table noodle shops to carts grilling skewered sparrows chicken to restaurants specializing in Peking Duck or dumplings, to a place that made traditional Three Cup Chicken with rabbit. Everything was so fresh. Colorful. Fragrant. Attractively plated.

I have several Chinese cookbooks (my favorite is a 30-year-old volume of The Complete Chinese Cookbook: Over 500 Authentic Recipes from China that I turn to most often when inspired to cook Chinese food or research a dish), but none celebrate the foods of Taiwan. Until now.

Excited as I was to begin cooking from The Food of Taiwan, one obstacle held me back: ingredients. Beyond soy sauce, the selection of Chinese grocery items in the Coachella Valley is basically non-existent. Every Asian person I know in the area has said they "drive into the LA area" for supplies every few weeks. (NOTE TO SELF: 1. Open Asian grocery in Palm Springs. 2. Become millionaire.)

Since we also drive into Los Angeles quite often, this time I gave myself several hours to tour through a few Asian markets. The first one, LAX-C (1100 N. Main St, Los Angeles 90012, 323-343-9000) has been described as a "Thai Costco", as it is a massive Asian restaurant-supply warehouse. Like Costco, most items can be purchased separately, but nearly all fresh fruits and vegetables must be purchased by the case. Unlike Costco, there is no membership fee, it is pretty dusty, unorganized, and there isn't a lot of customer service. It is so large and so busy, there is an attendant directing traffic in the parking lot. Don't let the name fool you - it has nothing to do with the airport; LAX-C is near Chinatown.

From the normal, to the exotic, LAX-C had everything on my list except sweet potato starch and they carried my favorite brand of Chili Bean Sauce.

Where has this vegetarian oyster sauce been all my life? In The Philippines, it seems. I also found Macapuno Balls - coconut sport balls - in the Filipino food area. What the heck? I had to come home and Google coconut sport balls. Apparently a coconut tree will randomly develop a "sport" - a biological term meaning "naturally occurring mutation". In the case of a Macapuno coconut, an abnormal development of the endosperm causes the cavity of the coconut shell to fill with jelly-like balls (in place of the usual stuff normally found inside a coconut). The resulting gelatinous "sport balls" are popular and expensive, due to their rarity - and they do not taste like coconut at all! We also lived in The Philippines for years and I do not recall ever seeing or trying Macapuno.

Serious Jeopardy answers here, Dear Reader.

"Meat" made from wheat gluten is super popular throughout the world, especially with vegetarians. I've eaten it quite a bit and find it quite tasty (usually due to the accompanying sauces). I've never seen this in a can. Until today.

Clean up crew at LAX-C

LAX-C is massive

And now for something completely different:

Asian-Schmasian. At lunch, I finally convinced Lenny to try the Pastrami Short Rib Sandwich (slow-smoked pastrami, pecan cole slaw, jalapenos, pickles, spicy mustard on a potato roll) at Fred62. Fred62 smokes the short ribs in their parking lot. Lenny loved his sandwich.

The Chinese grocery search continued after lunch. I visited the ambiguously-named A Grocery Warehouse in Echo Park (1487 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, 90026, 213-250-1446).

This establishment seemed a bit seedy on the outside, but once inside the smells and sounds made me feel right at home. Two women were "discussing" (in Mandarin Chinese) the price of a bright pink bedspread. A very aggressive cashier confiscated my reusable grocery bags at the front door and waved me on. I told her (in Chinese) I did not understand, but she did not answer - just prodded me into the aisles. I decided the bag retention is shoplifting prevention, but I think a warning sign on the front door would be more polite.

Never mind. I did not steal. I did not find my sweet potato starch either. I did find DT's favorite peanut snack from Manila - Nagaryara Cracker Nuts. Original flavor, his favorite. Dang, I can't even imagine how many packages of these coated peanuts he downed in three years. Whenever we see them at an international grocery store, a few bags find their way into our shopping cart. So delicious.

The rows were neat and tidy. Everything jar perfectly aligned by an obsessive-compulsive retail merchandiser... or maybe the reusable grocery bag confiscator? In the back of the store was a small selection of Chinese restaurant dinnerware and a very good kitchen (if you are cooking Chinese foods) utensil department. Bamboo steamers, rice rinsing baskets, woks, spiders, tongs, chopsticks. Everything. Prices were extremely reasonable.

A Grocery Warehouse has a very nice butcher and fresh fish counter with on-site help to carve, trim and debone as needed by the customers. The fresh fruits and vegetables were also very excellent (and again, such great prices).

One interesting difference between the two stores I visited today was the clientele. I was the only Caucasian at LAX-C and nearly every shopper was Thai. Customers from every corner of the globe were shopping at A Grocer Warehouse. I heard Chinese, Cantonese, English, Thai, Spanish and Hindi...

There are many, many more Asian grocers to explore in Rosemead and other towns east of Los Angeles with large Chinese populations. Another day. Another column.

Until my next update, I remain, your menu-planning correspondent.