Thursday, December 29, 2011

asian grocery (s)hopping

I just went to four Asian groceries to do some comparison shopping. I had purged my apartment of food prior to the winter holidays and now it was time to restock. No better time to do a grand run of a few of the groceries in the International District! Granted, after hitting four stored, I was getting bored and I had to pee so I left. The four that I went to were:

Note, I'm basing my judgement on a few things: staples (egg noodles, instant noodles, oyster sauce, produce (freshness, packaging, price), and a dash of meat. I also needed to buy a few random things like chopsticks, spoons, and tea cups. Amazingly, I only found spoons and am still searching for good tea cups and chopsticks (more on this below).

Lam's Seafood (King St east of 12th)
This place is like a wannabe Uwajimaya. It's pretty well organized and has a lot of variety. The people who work there speak mainly (as in almost exclusively) Mandarin and the product selection reflects that a bit. What I mean is that they don't have as many egg noodles to choose from. )-: But, they do have super fresh looking produce (I suspect it may be trick lighting) and great prices. They're among the cheapest for produce, which combined with freshness is a win.

Surprisingly, despite the abundance of checkout counters, the checkout process is a bit of a cluster. The whole store is also a bit crowded, especially in by the refrigerated sections. Still, the place has a good combination of great produce at great prices. They also had the cheapest sauces around, with the fancy oyster sauce being about $4 (compared to $4.80 at the other ID places and probably $7? at Uwajimaya?). Given my goal of finding a place to "drop by" on my way home from work, I think this may be the place. I just wish they spoke Cantonese.
  • Why go there? Great produce section at great prices. They also have a decent seafood section with crab, lobster, oysters, etc at pretty good prices. Cheaper than going out and catching them yourself, although less fun I'm sure.
  • What not to get there? They basically just speak Mandarin and they don't have the noodles I like.
Hop Than Super Market - 12th and Jackson (SW)
Less people at this one than the other markets, but despite that, they had fairly fresh looking produce, and at reasonable prices. Oranges for about 80c a pound here (less than half of Uwajimaya's price).
  • Why go there? Cheap! Not Hau Hau (好好) cheap, but comparable and they had pretty decent produce. Not the cheapest or freshest, but decent all around. They also pack their veggies in slightly smaller bundles than Hau Hau (好好). The store is also organized and not crowded, which is a definite plus. And they speak Cantonese!
  • What not to get there? IIt's on the wrong side of the street. I guess that isn't really a problem.

Hau Hau (好好) - 12th and King (NE)
This is the massive one that's hard to miss up on top of the hill that had more stuff outside than inside. My parents went here and had positive comments, and I've been meaning to go.

Pricewise, this place was the best. They also had a large assortment of egg noodles for about $1 each (less than half of what Uwajimaya charges, and 15% less than most other places in the ID). They also had by far the cheapest veggies. Baby bok choy for 50c a pound compared to Uwajimaya WTF $2 a pound. The downside is that the veggies looked like crap and were packaged to feed a family of four for several days. In other words, not for me.

The other downside of this place is that the store isn't organized at all. The same products show up in multiple places and none of it makes sense.

  • Why go there? Cheap! Great for noodles and other non-perishable staples that are common. Oddly, not the cheapest for sauce (oyster, soy, etc.). And they speak Cantonese!
  • What not to get there? Anything perishable. Anything that's not high volume, they may not have (like thousand year old egg).

Uwajimaya - Bellevue
Ah.... finally... the flagship Asian grocer. I went here first, typed this first, but putting it at the end since it's a rant.

A few words to describe Uwajimaya... fancy, clean, touristy, Japanese, not Chinese.

Touristy is the new word from this visit. I was looking for the kitchen wares listed above and was able to find the steamer and spoons here as expected, but I was miraculously unsuccessful finding "good" chopsticks or tea cups. All the chopsticks they carried were Japanese style (as in pointy and mostly metal). I wanted some Chinese bamboo/wood ones. They only had one set that wasn't metal and it was some toxic yellow that I didn't want to buy. As for the tea cups, note that I am looking for some "old man" tea cups that no one uses nowadays. I expected them to not have them at all, but instead they had some that looked like them but were functionally all fucked up. This is how they earned the tourist tag - by selling products that don't/shouldn't appeal to real Asians.

To close, Uwajimaya, as expected, continued being overpriced (but being Bellevue, it was priced like a mainstream American grocery... 79c for green onions, over $2 for overpackaged egg noodles, $1.79 for apples and around that for oranges) and lacking in selection for certain staples like egg noodles and tea. Or maybe I'm an old man in wanting loose leaf tea that isn't generic "green tea." Oh... the new location is a total pain in the ass to get in and out of... even worse than when it was at Crossroads.... and somehow the store is less spacious with aisles that aren't quite wide enough for passing carts (or a single cart in the produce section).

  • Why go there? They have a great selection of fancy snacks (like soup rice balls with black sesame) and great meat. And their ID location sucks much less than the Bellevue location in terms of convenience and price (on produce.... I think). They also have a good selection of kitchen stuff. They speak English.
  • What not to buy there? Tea, noodles, and basically anything that isn't perishable that you can buy somewhere else. Other places have better selection and better prices.

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