I often wish I could be magically transported to the middle of a bustling street market in a far-off land, surrounded by unfamiliar sights, enticing aromas and tempting tastes. When this impulse hits, lacking a plane ticket and a couple of weeks off, I head to Richmond’s Pacific East Mall, where a short voyage plunks me down in the midst of –-no, not a street market, but maybe the next best thing — an emporium of Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese and Indonesian restaurants and foodstuffs. I lose myself for hours, sampling exotic–to me–dishes and perusing products that have made their own journeys across the globe.
A good start for a Pacific East Mall outing is a tall cup of boba (the popular bubble tea beverage that originated in Taiwan) from J & S Coffee Tea House, whose menu lists over 100 drinks made with combinations of milk, tea and fruit or other flavors. I have it on very good authority (teenage daughter) that their taro milk tea with tapioca is “the best” and besides tapioca balls, they offer a dozen different colorful jelly bits–including mango, lychee and passion-fruit flavors–to add some chewy confetti to your drink.
Next stop is the Sheng Kee Bakery with a wide array of traditional Chinese and western-inspired baked goods. I like to try one or two of their buns, rolls, croissants or tall fluffy breads on each visit. Recently, I was drawn to the individually wrapped quarter circles labelled “engagement pastry” in sesame, red bean, pineapple or date flavors. When I asked, the cashier told me these represent a gift given to the family to celebrate an engagement. The sesame pastry provided a friendly, nutty, cookie-like crunch. I have previously taken home their tall taro and red bean breads and date moon cakes. I’m always on the lookout for a new taro treat and was happy to discover their taro twist, filled with lavender, almond paste-infused taro.
When it’s time for a real meal, the mall offers many options for casual, well-traveled spots, including: Thai take-out, Vietnamese Pho, a Noodle house, as well as Japanese, Chinese and Korean eateries. One popular Hong Kong-style restaurant, Asian Pearl, is known for their dim sum (no carts wheeled around here–-so you need to order from the menu, but there are some helpful pictures or you can always glance over at what diners at the next table are having.
During my most recent visit, I had dinner at the spacious, wood-paneled Koreana Kitchen II and enjoyed the hot stone bibimbap, a bowl of rice, topped with mushrooms, spinach, carrots, bean sprouts, seaweed and a choice of protein. The best part was the 10 little dishes of banchan that accompany all meals, such as kim chi daikon and cabbage, crispy sweet potato, crunchy seaweed, slippery yam noodles, sweet-ish fish cake and more.
Sustained by a full tummy, I am ready to tackle the fascinating wares at the queen of the mall, 99 Ranch Market, a one-stop shop for adventurous (or homesick) cooks.
An ocean of fresh fish and seafood lines the back wall, including tanks of live catfish and mussels and clams in ponds of bubbling water. The produce section is home to hard-to-find fruits and vegetables, such as banana flower buds, gobo, lotus root, wood-ear mushrooms and galangal. One market aisle is devoted to a rainbow of rice, (black, white, brown and red) in large to huge sacks. Another features tangled knots of noodles made out of everything from mung beans to sweet potatoes. The snack aisle displays crunchy treats in unusual flavor combinations, such as green onion cookies, durian mochi and strawberry flavored beef jerky. If you are cooking an Asian dish, 99 Ranch is sure to have whatever ingredients you need.
The last time I availed myself of 99 Ranch’s worldly repertoire, I was planning to make the comforting Walnut Soup from Grace Young’s first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. The creamy soup, which according to Young is considered a tonic in Chinese culture, has only 3 ingredients. I could manage the oven-roasted walnuts on my own, but knew I needed some help with the other two. So I asked a cashier where to find the rice flour (non-glutinous, specifies Young) and peen tong, a kind of brown sugar that comes in chunky bars. The cashier’s face brightened at the mention of peen tong and she directed me to the appropriate aisles. I picked up a couple of other items that I usually get at 99 Ranch (like huge packages of individual servings of crispy Korean seaweed) and headed back to the same cashier I originally asked for help. She seemed genuinely thrilled that I was going to make something with the golden ingots of sugar.
Speaking of sugar, another mall shop that is sure to please any sweet-tooth is the Candy Box. A tiny space, crammed floor to ceiling with sugary and salty imported treats from Japan, Taiwan and Hawaii. Day-glo sour fruit, hot, spicy squid and gummy everything plus a sweet, chatty owner who provides generous samples. On my recent visit, she was putting up a sign in the crowded window featuring her latest shipment of Green Tea Flavored Kit Kat bars from Japan. “These are so popular,” she told me, “they will be sold out in a couple of days.” “Why?” I asked? “Don’t know, they’re from Japan, hard to find and people think green tea is healthy.”
Don’t worry if you missed your chance to shout “gimme a break” in Japanese, or didn’t get enough dim sum at Asian Pearl. You can always take home some gummy chicken feet.
(Be forewarned: finding parking can be a nightmare here, especially on the weekends and many shops only accept cash.)
Pacific East Mall
3288 Pierce St.
Richmond, CA 94804