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Asian Grocery Stores In The Time Of Coronavirus

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Nearly two dozen people hover near the end of a grocery store aisle, blocked from stampeding it by an impromptu barricade of hand-trucks. They're watching with laser-sharp focus as four young men stock the shelves with can after can of beans. Pinto, kidney, black, garbanzo, mung, cannellini. These customers are determined to get their legumes, which are suddenly a hot commodity. I continue shopping and circle back half-an-hour later. The shelves are still being stocked. The customers are still waiting.

It's 8 a.m. at Whole Foods in Pasadena, and this is our new normal.

Maybe you can't — or just don't want to — pick over jalapeno chips, banana-flavored cereal and whatever items other shoppers have left behind. What do you do? Drive 15 minutes east to the San Gabriel Valley where you'll find grocery stores with full shelves, short lines and, yes, plenty of beans.

Broad beans for sale at Arcadia Supermarket, March 2020.
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While a security guard at 99 Ranch in Arcadia told me the store was busier than usual, the Asian grocery chains I've visited in recent weeks (Arcadia Market, H Mart and a few others; this is hardly an exhaustive survey) and the ones I've seen on social media seem remarkably empty.

With the coronavirus shutdown keeping diners away from its famed dumpling houses, noodle joints, hot pot restaurants and dim sum palaces, the San Gabriel Valley's robust restaurant industry has been hit hard. Racism and xenophobia have added salt to the wound, further devastating businesses owned by Chinese Americans. Those factors may also be keeping non-Asian shoppers away from Asian supermarkets.

Want to support these stores and skip the long lines at "standard" grocery stores? Pay them a visit.

1. Wherever You Go, Do It Safely

Practice social distancing. Bring hand sanitizer and use it. Consider wearing latex gloves and throw out the gloves when you leave the store. Touch as few items as you can. Wash your hands when you get home. Wash your hands again after you unload your groceries. (You should follow these guidelines for any public outing but you're barely going out because you're staying "safer at home," right?)

2. Decide On A Destination

If you're in Pasadena and need Indian groceries, head to Namaste Spiceland. If you want organic produce, need specific Korean ingredients, crave Tous Les Jours honey toast or want a to-go tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) from the food court, head to H Mart, the fanciest of Southern California's Korean grocery chains. If you need specific Chinese ingredients, head to 99 Ranch or its smaller, less busy counterpart, Arcadia Supermarket. In the San Gabriel Valley, these stores are within 10 minutes of each other. Although supplies of eggs, milk and rice were low at all of them, I saw workers carting out more of these items as I left.

3. Go At A Less Busy Time

Unless you can't avoid it, don't go on a weekend. Even with most businesses closed during the COVID-19 quarantine, weekends are still busier than weekdays at grocery stores.

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H Mart

A smattering of printed signs on the front door of the Arcadia H Mart says the store isn't accepting returns for sanitary reasons and you can only buy some products in limited quantities -- one bag of rice, one box of instant noodles, one flat of 24 water bottles, two cans of SPAM (lol, love you Korea), one 12-box package of instant cooked rice, two packages of noodles or pasta, one package of flour and two dozen eggs.

A friend warned me that when she went to H Mart in Arcadia the previous weekend, a couple days after the national emergency declaration, the line had wrapped around the store. But when I arrive at 3:15 p.m. on a weekday, only 12 people are standing in line.

Fruit and vegetables for sale at the Arcadia location of H Mart, a Korean grocery chain; March 2020.

In the produce section, you'll find plentiful dragonfruit, citrus, melons, apples, pears and even golden nugget mandarins. The steam table that usually serves hot foods is closed but there are pounds and pounds of unclaimed fish and meat, including bulgogi (marinated slices of beef), chicken for dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), samgyeopsal (pork belly) and galbi (beef ribs).

The picked over dairy case at the Arcadia location of H Mart, a Korean grocery chain; March 2020.

Dairy, however, is a desert. A lone yogurt and a few cartons of heavy cream sit near a couple cans of Reddi Whip and some canned caramel macchiatos.

The frozen food section is a goldmine. You'll find vegetable buns and dumplings galore.

Ramen for sale at the Arcadia location of H Mart, a Korean grocery chain; March 2020.

On shelves, you'll find packaged goods like beef jerky and tons of ramen including cheese, sesame and Jin Ramen (it's not my favorite either, but at least you won't starve during this pandemic). There's no rice at the moment but you'll find loads of packages of flour and some spaghetti. As I'm perusing, a store employee pushes past me with a giant cart stacked with cartons of eggs.

You have your pick of beer although snobs might turn up their noses at the selection of Bud, Heineken, Modelo, Tsingtao, Red Strike and Anchor Steam. You'll also spot the usual soju suspects: Chamisul, a few flavored sojus and some makgeolli.

Don't forget your K-beauty products. Two good ones are Missha Time Revolution, a cheaper version of SK-II and natureby's red ginseng mask. Red ginseng supposedly helps with high blood sugar and stress although it may be better known as a natural Viagra.

The food court at the Arcadia H Mart is a fave and you can still get ddukbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes), tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork), jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce), pajeon (flat savory pancakes), pho and bibimbap to go.

Finish your visit at the attached Tous Les Jours bakery with a blueberry yogurt cream cake, an almond croissant, a taro cream bread or a soft whole milk loaf, perfect for breadfacing. It's silly but what else are you doing at home besides sheetmasking, streaming TV shows and maybe taking advantage of ginseng's stimulating qualities?

Croissants and other pastries at Tous Les Jours, the bakery at the Arcadia location of H Mart, a Korean grocery chain; March 2020.

If you don't feel like going out at all, H Mart also ships many items, including refrigerated ones, to the 48 contiguous U.S. states via UPS ground delivery.

  • H Mart has nine locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties including Arcadia, Koreatown Los Angeles, Irvine and Torrance.
Customers shop at at a 99 Ranch, March 2020.

99 Ranch

99 Ranch is a behemoth among Asian grocery chains. When I step into the Arcadia mothership on a weekday shortly after 4 p.m., the longest line has three customers. Here, my face mask isn't an anomaly that draws fearful stares. In less than five minutes, I've snagged big bags of red beans, mung beans and black beans for $2 to $3 each. (I'm counting the days until Home Cooking, Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway's bean-obsessed podcast, launches.)

While beans, especially cannellini and other kinds less popular with Asian shoppers, were plentiful at 99 Ranch, the store had no rice. I mean none. Not one bag, whether tiny or giant. This was a pattern I'd see repeated at all the Asian markets I went to.

What is available? Tomato sauce and noodles. Canned mushrooms, water chestnuts, banana shoots and banana leaves. Gobs of fresh meat, poultry and seafood, although you'll probably have to queue up to place your order. Frozen, ready-to-cook chicken, beef and spicy pork bulgogi. Hot-pot add ons like shrimp balls, tofu balls and sliced lamb.

Shin Ramyun, seafood ramen and Thai MAMA ramen. Jujube honey tea and yuzu tea for colds. Chaokoh coconut milk and Kara coconut cream. Refrigerated buns of all kinds -- red bean, taro, nine-grain (stick 'em in your steamer and you have a delicious snack).

Refrigerated buns for sale at 99 Ranch, March 2020.

Stroll over to the produce section and you'll find a motherlode of fresh fruit and veggies including wrapped Korean pears, bananas, oranges, taro, jicama, Napa and western cabbage, asparagus, broccoli, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, luobo, eggplant, yams, onions, celtuce (yes, we spelled that right), limes, lemons and avocados.

Vegetables for sale at a 99 Ranch supermarket, March 2020.

Near the entrance, you'll find a small bakery slinging red bean mochi and sponge cakes.

The line when I left at 4:30 p.m.? Super manageable.

"It's been busy after work and on the weekends but not so crazy that there are lines that wrap around the store," a security guard tells me. "You don't have to wait more than 10 minutes in line ever."

  • You'll find 99 Ranch markets in Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Chino, Chino Hills, Artesia, Anaheim, Irvine, Van Nuys and Arcadia. You can also order in-store pickup.
Customers shop Arcadia Supermarket, March 2020.

Arcadia Supermarket

Arcadia Supermarket is smaller and not as well known as H Mart or 99 Ranch but it has other virtues. It's still a fairly large space, complete with kitchen supplies, an impressive produce section and a dozen aisles -- and even at 5 p.m., it wasn't crowded.

For protein, seafood is your best bet. The store has fresh uni, oysters, geoduck clams and lobster, as well as whole and fileted fish. There are also chicken eggs, quail eggs, duck eggs and century eggs.

Tofu for sale at Arcadia Supermarket, March 2020.

You'll find a wealth of tofu, both soft and firm (the Furama brand, though). Take your pick of beans -- a 12-ounce bag of dried blackeyed peas, lima beans or broad beans sells for between selling for between $1.79 and $2.59 each. Large bags of rice noodles go for $1.79.

Tapioca pearls (used for boba, among other things) for sale at Arcadia Supermarket, March 2020.

There are heaps of Yakult's sweet and tiny probiotic yogurt drinks. Snag some tapioca pearls and make your own boba drinks, tapioca pudding or taro tapioca dessert soup (yes, you'll find taro at Arcadia Supermarket).

Alt-milks for sale at Arcadia Supermarket, March 2020.

While many other stores have run out of alt-milks, you'll find quart jugs of Chinese soy milk.

Your beer choices include Taiwan, Tsingtao, Hite, Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin, Heineken, Stella, Corona, Bud and Modelo, but no craft options.

The easiest part? Literally zero customers in line at some cashiers.

  • 645 W. Duarte Rd, Arcadia.8:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., daily626-447-6282
Namaste Spiceland, an Indian market and restaurant, in Pasadena.

Namaste Spiceland

Namaste Spiceland is both a restaurant and a market. On one side, you'll find South Indian delights like dosa, uttapam, idli and vada. On the other, there's an impressive array of Indian produce and products including dudhi (a bottle gourd also known as opo squash), guvar beans and cooking supplies you wouldn't find anywhere else in Pasadena.

Vegetables on sale at Namaste Spiceland in Pasadena, March 2020. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

And on Friday at 5:30 p.m., I saw only five people standing in line to pay for groceries.

"We have supplies coming in every day and we also started delivering groceries in Pasadena and neighboring cities," says Harsh Malik, who co-owns the venture with three of his cousins. You can order groceries by texting 818-799-1299 and Malik says Namaste Spiceland is working on making delivery available from its Thousand Oaks store.

Rice is still plentiful, although there are limits to how much you can buy, at Namaste Spiceland in Pasadena, March 2020.

Although there are limits on certain staple items (rice, lentils, paav bread and atta flour used to make flatbreads), few items are in short supply. There were still eight 20-pound bags of rice available and Harsh says more rice is being delivered every day. The store is stocked with black matpe beans, lentils of all colors, yellow peas, pigeon peas, moong beans, mung beans, cow peas and chana dal.

Lentils on sale at Namaste Spiceland in Pasadena, March 2020.

The dairy section has plenty of butter, yogurt and paneer cheese. In the same refrigerated section, you'll be able to scoop up potatoes, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, mint, onion, karela (bitter melon), curry leaves, Anaheim chilis, arvi (taro root), bhindi (okra), snake gourd and dosakaya (a yellow cucumber great for dosakaya pappu dal).

The freezers also stock all sorts of delicious things you can defrost and heat at a moment's notice. Frozen samosa, curries, all types of flatbreads. The diverse selection spans Punjabi samosas, cocktail samosas, spicy samosas and purani dilli samosas. For frozen flatbreads, there's naan, of course, but there's also paratha, kulcha, roti and chapathi with many fillings and flavors.
The snack section is your new streaming companion, comforting you with Gujarati gram flour chips, spicy banana chips and South Indian spicy snack mixes with crispy noodles. Don't miss the case at the back of the store, where you'll find a selection sweet frozen treats including Vadilal brand kesar pista kulfi (saffron pistachio ice cream) or grab some laddu, gulab jamun and other desserts in the case near the front of the store.

Kulfi on sale at Namaste Spiceland in Pasadena, March 2020. (Dakota Kim for LAist)

If there were ever a time to do a home henna treatment, burn incense or try some Ayurvedic soap, it's now. Namaste Spiceland has those products in spades, including a pleasant mogra (jasmine) incense and the popular Chandrika Ayurvedic soap, which is known for treating acne.

The restaurant food at Namaste Spiceland can be ordered via most food delivery apps.

  • 270 N. Hill Ave., Pasadena.9:30 a.m. - 9 p.m., daily626-345-5514
  • 821 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.10:00 a.m. - 9 p.m., daily805-373-6761
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