April 3 2013 09:16 AM

Northgate Gonzalez, Zion Market and Nijiya Market are good for more than just groceries

March 2013 014
Pan dulce at Northgate Gonzalez
Photo by Mina Riazi
Though I'm no food snob, supermarket fare doesn't usually tempt my appetite. The beige and boxy grocery stores of my O.C. childhood offered too-sweet cookies, cupcakes and donuts in bright, fluorescent shades. More than that, they were dry and rock-hard, disappearing into crumbs when I'd attempt my first bite. The tubs of mac 'n' cheese, potato salad and fusilli noodles sweating inside display cases only provided comfort when I was craving something overpriced and under-seasoned. It wasn't until I was older that I began discovering supermarket eats that didn't offend taste buds:

Northgate Gonzalez: Enter this Latin-themed mart and you'll instantly be distracted by a sweet, buttery smell. You then might devote several seconds to locating the aroma's source. At least that's how I spent my first few minutes inside Barrio Logan's Northgate Gonzalez supermarket (1950 Main St.).

The sunlit, high-ceilinged store opened in December 2012—after more than two decades of community-wide anticipation—as part of the Mercado Project. Upon entering, I followed my nose to a shiny display case packed with Mexican sweet breads, or pan dulces. There were jam-filled besos, turtlebacked conchas, horn-shaped cuernos and curvy elotitos. And the five-for-$3 bargain ensured that both my wallet and I would stay full and happy. I slung a few of the pillowy pastries into a plastic bag and continued my trek through the superstore.

Hot food options—from catfish soup to stuffed chili peppers to fried fish—awaited me on the other side. But I was too focused on devouring my sweets to make a last-minute dash for the savory. I ended up digging through my mixed bag while sitting in the car. The ear-shaped oreja was the solid winner, brittle and crunchy with a satisfying snap. Its crisp, burnt-sugar edges won me over, and I ducked into the store once more for an extra bag of the flaky delights.

Zion Market: Zion's dizzying pastry selection yanked my attention when I first entered the Kearny Mesa Korean supermarket (4611 Mercury St.). But I knew better than to linger around sweets, so I rushed to a fridge jam-packed with ready-to-eat sides like steamed lotus root and seaweed salad. I grabbed a container of bean leaves with soybean before sidling towards the market's freshly prepared meals. These include signature Korean dishes like gimpop and bibimpap. Chili-flecked fried chicken, steamed purple sweet potato and deep-fried seaweed rolls were other enticing options.

I settled for a plate of chive pancakes, which looked chewy and flavorful. I then tossed a container of seaweed chips into my cart for good measure and carefully avoided the bakery on my way to the cashier. The chive pancakes were cut into two-bite squares, making for easy, chopstick-free enjoyment. They were delightfully springy, perfectly oily and specked with meaty bits of shrimp. Unfortunately, with their earthy, pungent flavor, the bean leaves were not a dish I'd try again. I felt the same way about the seaweed chips, which packed a rich, salty punch, and left my sodium-singed tongue feeling a little tender.

Nijiya Market: Nijiya's bright, sleek interior is reason enough to visit the Japanese market (3860 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa). The place flaunts an impressive selection of fresh fish, bento boxes and pastries. Nijiya's ready-to-eat options include everything from fried chicken to sushi rolls to big, steaming bowls of udon. I've always preferred slick soba to chewy udon, so I opted for a bento box and fried chicken.

Outside of the store, a cluster of tables and chairs await eager gluttons. I grabbed a seat and broke into my meal. Though cold, the Japanese-style fried chicken—or chicken karaage— was delectable. The chicken is first marinated in ginger, garlic and soy sauce before it's coated in a flour and potato-starch mixture. The potato starch creates a thick, crisp crust while keeping the chicken moist. My bento box was chockfull of goodies, including a silky slab of fried tofu. A potato croquette and a rather flavorless scallion pancake joined the mix, along with a heap of brown rice. Vibrant, zingy pickles completed the sturdy meal, which, though not resplendent, was savory enough for supermarket food. 

Write to minar@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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