I treat restaurants the way your average guy treats women. I find something I like; it's new, it's awesome, I can't get enough of it. I have it a couple more times, I get tired of it and I move on to something new. I went through my burrito phase, my sushi phase and my chicken-wing phase. Never did I imagine that my flavor of the month would be found at the supermarket across the street from work.
99 Ranch market doesn't look like much from the outside. It's a nondescript supermarket along a nondescript American boulevard, set among strip malls punctuated with strip clubs, car dealers and a Carl's Jr. But through those automatic glass doors lies one of San Diego's great cultural experiences. Inside, it's truly another world.
If you, like me, are not Asian, you will suddenly find yourself the only non-Asian person in the room when you enter. It's an expansive space, a bustling marketplace selling exotic products, goods and produce, and yet a commonplace store to its local customers. 99 Ranch is more like an indoor mini-mall, housing two restaurants, a jeweler, a fish store, video rental, a bubble-tea shop and the best, most unexpected deli counter around. And if you're like me, you're always looking for that authentic eating experience. Just listen: not a word of English to be heard. You know you've come to the right place.
I cannot help but feel like the stereotypical Caucasian American male as I muscle my way through the crowd of slow-moving elderly shoppers carelessly backing into me. I'm impatient when I'm hungry. If you're like me, as you make your way to the deli counter, you might throw a stiff arm or two as you grab a number.
The setting from there is akin to the New York Stock Exchange; you're one of the many hungry drones jockeying for position, shouting and waving your ticket. Be ready when they call your number. You've got about a 1.5-second window to respond before they move on to the next number and your one chance has passed.
Beneath the glass is the object of this frenzy-an eye-popping spread of well-lit Chinese fast food. All the classics are represented: Kung Pao Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, Barbecue Pork, Dim Sum, Egg Rolls, Chicken Teriyaki. Then, for the more adventurous-well, to be honest, I have no clue what some of the other stuff is.
All the dishes I've tried were excellent. Try the Chicken Roll, and don't judge it by its looks. Before I asked someone what it was, I just assumed it was probably some kind of salty, fermented pork genitals. I was wrong. It's actually a chicken sausage wrapped in a tofu shell, and it's delicious with sweet-and-sour sauce, some chili sauce and rice. But usually when I have a mind to venture into that unknown Chinese culinary zone (and it can be treacherous), I catch a glimpse of the Orange Chicken from the corner of my eye, calling me back. It's the standout dish, in my opinion: crispy, sweet and spicy, like some sort of chicken-flavored candy.
For $3.29, they'll give you a mountain of Orange Chicken or any other item of your choice with steamed rice and soup. It's a ridiculous amount of food. Four dollars and some change gets you two items with rice and soup. And it goes up from there-but trust me, anything beyond one item is excessive, you greedy American!
OK, I know what you're thinking-$3.29 is kind of steep. For $2.29, they have a daily rotating lunch special consisting of an entrée, like Cantonese beef stew or Vietnamese pork chops, plus rice, soup and sometimes a banana. Holy egg rolls, that's cheap!
It's not the comfortable seating; think high school cafeteria. It's not the friendly service-my continuing efforts to draw a smile out of the workers seems only to have aroused suspicion. What has kept me coming back to 99 Ranch for my last 15 consecutive lunch breaks is authentic Chinese fast food for the price of a gallon of gas. Also, the fun is in stepping outside of my comfort zone, participating in another culture with both subtle and blaring differences, while, all along, white America waits just outside the automatic glass doors. Maybe I'll get my fill one of these days and move on to the next spot that looks good. But 99 Ranch's deli counter offers so many options, such great value and such a unique cultural experience, I could see myself settling down with this one.
99 Ranch Market, 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa, is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. 858-974-8899
Got something to say? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.