You can find your favorite breakfast cereal in any supermarket inside of a minute, thanks to homogeneity in stocking and design. But you're usually lost the moment you enter an ethnic market — and you're happy for that.
You study new-to-you vegetables and dry goods, seafood items, drinks, teas, spices and more. The languages and labels are fun, each aisle presents the potential for a totally new culinary experience, and, best of all, you can often mine an in-store deli. Bonus: The prices there often beat those in restaurants.
The three markets we visited this week all feature eateries worth a visit. And they go to show: For a tease of traveling abroad and a taste of true international flavors, small ethnic markets are where it's at.
1843 Briargate Blvd., 528-6869
At Shawn Sharifi's 15-year-old Mediterranean grocery and deli, which has loose ties to his brother's Caspian Cafe, you'll find items ranging from spices and dry goods to pastries, Croatian chocolate and Middle Eastern flavored tobacco. In the eatery, flavors from Greece, Turkey and Iran rule the menu.
They differ subtly from other Mediterranean and Mideast fare; see the fava beans mixed with the garbanzo in the wonderfully spiced falafel that came on my Mazeh Platter ($7.95), along with a big, fresh Greek salad; warm pita; garlicky tzatziki; tahini-rich hummus; and delicious, cinnamon-spiked beef and pine nut sambousa (stuffed puff pastries). A palate-challenging mint-yogurt soda ($1.69) is worth exploration; so, too, will be a second location at 6799 N. Academy Blvd., promising tapas and wine, in coming months. — Matthew Schniper
Asian Pacific Market
615 Wooten Road, #160, 573-7500
It's easy to get lost among the dizzying rows of vegetables, fruits, oils, sauces, dry noodles and soup mixes at Asian Pacific Market. Packaged meats from chicken breast to chicken feet lead to frozen delicacies and a wide variety of ice-packed fresh fish and even live crab skirting around large tanks.
For those not desiring to cook all this at home, an in-house chef prepares favorites like whole roast duck and char siu (barbecued) pork cuts, and hangs them behind a deli window at the huge store's front. They're impressive, but I was simply undone by the light and fluffy cha siu bao, or steamed pork buns ($1.50 for two). A fine, soft bread that employs both yeast and baking powder gives way to a syrupy, slow-roasted pork and onion blend ... so addicting! — Monika Mitchell Randall
1660 S. Circle Drive, 444-8600, liborio.com
Tucked between the carnicería and the pollería sits Rancho Liborio's cocina: its in-store dining area featuring a full lineup of tortas, enchiladas, tacos, tostadas and sopes, not to mention the most heavenly, cinnamon-laden horchata ($1.99) ever dished from a large, clear plastic tub.
My curiosity piqued by the 99-cent tacos, and by past experience with taco-truck cuisine, I went with the lengua (tongue), carnitas and asada tacos. Toppings are self-serve, so after loading the trio up with diced white onions and cilantro, I drizzled some decent smoky red pepper sauce and found what I'd hoped for: still-tasty tacos that were cheaper than at the mobiles. And sure, the lengua was a little mushy, and the asada was a little dry, and the carnitas a little fatty — together, they still made for a hell of a $3 lunch. — Bryce Crawford