TO MARKET, TO MARKET These grocery stores offer international ingredients, ethnic diversity for those who want more than a quart of milk and loaf of bread

THE TRIP to the store.

Not a traipse to the corner store for a carton of milk. Not a hop on the Huffy to the market because Mom ran out of butter while mixing her chocolate chip cookies.

This trip was a pilgrimage. Mom and Dad would empty out the trunk and pack the kids in the back seat for the long drive. They would cross city, county, even state lines, just to stock up staples and spices from the old hometown or mother country.

Once there, they’d root through haphazardly stacked boxes and cans or dig through open bins. Here you learned the enchantment of serendipity, when Dad would look for incense and find a wind-up toy, which he consented to add to the overburdened basket.

A bottle of translucent olive oil would spur stories about grandma, or a dried preserved plum prompted reminisces about when your parents were your age, as if that were ever possible. You learned to recognize the funny swirled lettering on the packages or the fragrance from the bulk spice bins. Your parents would gossip with other customers about goings-on in Vietnam or Louisiana. They always managed to find a blood bond or a common friend among the strangers.

As adults, we trade these weekend journeys for convenience, for antiseptic aisles of absurd abundance. One-stop shopping becomes even easier with big-time supermarkets more willing to stock foodstuffs nurtured on soils several states or continents away.

But, for grocery explorers, a fortunate Bay Area confluence of ethnic, organic and gourmet tastes brings these food oases ever closer. Better yet, our excursions become a shared exploration of diverse culinary heritage.

Asian mega-mart

The new 99 Ranch (3288 Pierce St., Richmond, 510-558-2120. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.) exemplifies the compromise of exotic convenience. A homesick Taiwanese immigrant tired of making the grocery drive decided he wanted his native cuisine closer to his Fountain Valley home in Orange County. Roger Chen now heads a national chain of Western-style Asian supermarkets, which include 99 Ranch, 99 Price and Tawa Supermarkets (the latter two are only in Southern California).

Some might consider the adventure of the hunt lacking here with its fluorescent lighting, multilingual labels and organized shelves. Others who want instant gratification will not only be gratified but grateful. Neophytes will marvel at the fresh vegetables and fruits and every imaginable tofu and noodle product. Ecstatic college students will be pulling out their sweaty, wrinkled dollar bills in the aisle entirely devoted to instant noodles.

Nearly everything you wanted to know about Asian groceries, but were afraid to ask, is explained in English at 99 Ranch. The Richmond branch, which opened in April, makes this store No. 7 in the greater Bay Area, after Daly City, Fremont, Cupertino, Milpitas and two in San Jose. Milpitas is larger, but the Richmond store holds all the essentials: fresh produce, live seafood, an in-house bakery and eateries.

The take-out counters dissolve that first rule of grocery shopping: Never buy food when you’re hungry. You can sate yourself silly with dim sum, Hong Kong noodles, roast duck, Taiwanese cuisine and sushi. Those who have long wondered at the lack of Chinese desserts can now at last find out the secret: hot, comforting dessert drinks such as thick, sweet red bean or cooling, fresh-squeezed juices such as cantaloupe or watermelon. Slushes sweetened with lychee or longan bestow icy revelations.

The meat department alone offers lessons in anatomy. Parts of animals that Western stores shun become the mouthwatering stuff of claypots, soups and hot pots. You can essentially reconstruct a pig here, from the snout to hocks. How they keep the liquid blood from congealing, I don’t want to know. The glorious fish counter has a frying service and a self-serve section for live clams (including the geoduck).

Old Oakland

Down in old Oakland, a five-block area embraces a world in microcosm. Brick and wrought iron distinguish old Oakland’s graceful borders at Broadway between 8th and 10th streets. Not so long ago, pawn shops sold other people’s wares in near-dilapidated environs before an ’80s renaissance reclaimed the Victorians.

Two longtime residents in this reinvigorated area are Ratto‘s (821 Washington St., 510-832-6503, Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) and Housewives’ Marketplace (818 Jefferson St., 510-444-4396, Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.). Ratto’s celebrated its 100th anniversary last June. “It’s one of the most comprehensive international markets around, ” says general manager Susan Nelson. Its globetrotting goods come from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa.

Senegalese, for instance, come for the red yam flour, while Brazilian transplants seek the addictive guayabana soda, bacalao (spined salt cod) and beer. Customers come before Greek Easter for the egg dye, and stock up year-round on Greek wine, ouzo, candies and cheeses.

Ratto’s tries to import its 200 bulk herbs and spices from the originating country, such as its Mexican oregano, Egyptian basil, France rosehips and Lebanese zahtar. Another lure is the fresh-made phyllo dough. The store has a stunning delicatessen, and if you can’t wait, sidewalk tables permit immediate noshing. Ratto’s also stocks kitchenware and delightful miscellany: Moroccan coffee sets, Syrian incense burners and incense, bulk hennas for the hair from India.

Many customers make their own voyages to visit Ratto’s. “There are a lot of people from Southern California, which we all know is a wasteland, right? A culinary wasteland, ” Nelson says. “We have people from the Midwest who visit their children here and take back baggies of contraband of chipotle seasonings which they can’t get in Omaha.” If the store doesn’t stock it, they will literally search the earth to find it. “We love to be asked for something odd.” Ratto’s secret? “We order from real bizarre people, ” Nelson says with a laugh.

Housewives’ Marketplace houses independent retailers within its cavernous warehouse, among them Jack’s Meats and Exotic African Foods, Allan’s Ham and Bacon and Deli, Taylor’s Sausage Factory, Moura’s Fish Market, Cervantes Produce and more.

This is the raw material for Southern and African cooking. Wander from the meat counter for oxtails, chitterlings and goat meat to the fish market for frog legs, sand dabs and, of all things, buffalo. Customers dig into absurdly convenient mammoth jars of Cajun spices and African seasonings.

Speaking of convenience, vendors offer discount clothing, key copying or shoeshines. In the center, the menu at Baughman’s Bar*B*Que, Donut Shop and Cafe is as long as its name. The espresso fix can propel you for prolonged browsing, or you can happily wear yourself down with an egg and pork steak breakfast or jumbo lunch plate of oysters. The best things in life include free parking.

While you’re here, don’t bypass all of Chinatown just on the other side of Broadway. Here you can get a splendid Vietnamese barbecued chicken sandwich for $1.50 or firm, golden noodles and translucent dumplings for less than $4. Produce with bits of fresh soil still clinging to leaves spills out into the sidewalks. For whatever reason, non-Chinese speakers sometimes fear entering this territory. Granted, it’s a different economy where you can lug home two overpacked paper bags and change from a $20 bill.

One of the best places to ease into the experience is Orient Market at its new second location, 410 7th St. (510-444-1220, open daily 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Also at 333 8th St., 510-444-1515, open daily 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m.). Not only does it have free parking right next door a coup in Chinatown it also has scanners. Well-organized aisles make browsing engaging.

Discounted delights

A uniquely American experience of a different kind lies in Canned Foods Grocery Outlet (2001 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-845-1771. Open Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-8 p.m.). At the end of the rainbow logo is a pot of promotional goods, slightly dented cans, excess inventory and holiday items. Packages still within their expiration date but not as “new and improved” as they once were also fill the shelves.

The outlet is an economic haven for people on a strict budget. Despite the unpredictable inventory, you can check off most of your grocery list and enjoy 25 percent to 70 percent savings.

“We feel like what we’re doing is for the greater good, ” says Darcy Gurtler, who recently went from being a buyer to marketing public relations manager. “The majority of our customers are of a very low-income bracket. While there are a good deal of people treasure hunting like a Trader Joe’s shopper, most of the shoppers need to save money. They come out of necessity. We help the manufacturers in the industry, pass on the savings, and have a profitable business. We feel very good about doing that.”

The Berkeley supplier has stocked the many independently operated Grocery Outlets throughout Northern California for the last 25 years. They aren’t slapdash discount warehouses; merchandise is arranged in neat rows.

Besides economic and environmental savings (it costs just as much to destroy the products as it does for the manufacturers to sell it to Canned Food Grocery Outlet), thrill-seekers get the adrenaline surge akin to the one they savor in flea markets and garage sales. Name-brand cereal for $1.99? Shampoo for $1.49? A box of Drumsticks ice cream for 99 cents? If you can stop cackling in glee long enough, you can pull together very respectable gift baskets of wine, lotion products, kitchenware or candles. Father’s Day cards are already out.

In a way, this is a uniquely American shopping experience. Grits, Chinese mushrooms and Mexican beans make their way here as does cereal. The highlight must be the failed products of American marketing gone awry. Gurtler, who doesn’t give names to protect the guilty, recalls bean stew in a jar as one of those sad Frankenstein creations. “It just doesn’t look good in a jar, ” she explains. “Spaghetti sauce is fine in a jar. A can of soup settles into a layer of mush and liquid. Who wants to see refried beans in a jar?” No doubt.

Mexican goodies

Los Mexicanos Market (730 Brentwood Blvd., Brentwood, 925-634-6412. Open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.) transcends the mom-and-pop store. Its size belies its packed aisles, with one entirely devoted to chili. Candy overtakes another aisle. Whether tamarind- or chili powder-flavored sweets, the selection guarantees to fill any of the various piatas at hand. You might feel a qualm taking a stick to Winnie-the-Pooh, although a Power Ranger may not merit that much sympathy.

Various meats and cheeses provide the elements of a satisfying meal. Cotija, a pungent dried cheese, crumbles easily atop tostadas and enchiladas, as does its fresco (fresh) version. Locals come for elusive Mexican cookies, such as those stuffed with marshmallows or infused with cinnamon.

Laura and Ramon Gonzales have owned the store for six years, bringing goods from all of Mexico to this spot along Highway 4. It’s a place where locals can pick up a pair of huaraches (sandals) or religious candles. Reading materials span Spanish-language translations of mainstream magazines such as Glamour or Discover, native publications such as Unknown Mexico or the pocket books about vaqueros (cowboys). For aches and pains, they offer herbal teas such as Tila, Valeriana or Romero. Customers, by the way, can pick up old-fashioned soda bottles for sheer nostalgia.

While we’ve stopped our shopping cart in its tracks at just a few places, we welcome your favorite market recommendations. Drop a line or call our food editor, Deborah Byrd, at 925-943-8254.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features

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