From the Father Kino statue on Kino Parkway, zig and zag by following seductive aromas to Roma Imports, which has been around for 20 years, though mostly as a wholesale purveyor. Embracing change for the past five years, Lillian Spieth now brings more retail, catering, lunch and specials to the table.
Familiar products can make an Italian ex-New Yorker weep at the selection of olive oils, fagioli cannellini, tomato paste in a tube (so practical), three kinds of cannoli shells, Illy espresso, homemade mozzarella, fresh ricotta, pizza dough, spumoni, lacy pizzelles, anise oil and anchovy fillets. Prepared foods--chicken and portobello mushroom ravioli, baked ziti and veggie lasagna--go from freezer to oven.
Nearby but equally complicated to find, the 17th Street Farmers Market has much more than just ordinary produce. It has one of the best selections of Asian produce in the city. Who knew there were so many choys? While bok choy might be exotic to some, imagine big gai choy, shen choy, chin kon choy and yam choy. Why not do a show-and-tell on how to prepare pencil-thin Thai chili, water chestnuts, lychee nuts, bitter melons and, of course, the choys?
Take time to browse the aisles for sushi accoutrements, teapots and Asian teas, many in gloriously decorative tins. In the freezer case, prepared dim sum and mochi desserts sit side by side with breakfast burritos and steak and kidney pie. The market sells relishes, roasted peppers, hot sauces, beans, spices, oils, chutneys, pastes, jams and flavored syrups that span the globe. There's even a kosher corner. The choices can be dazzling or dizzying. Much of the packaging is not in English, nor does it use standard American measurements, so you either have to read the foreign language, understand the metric system or be daring.
Moan's Oriental Market specializes in products from Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Closely related to Karuna Thai restaurant, the family-run business has been around since 1985. Small but cluttered, the store features hard-to-find-fresh produce like kaffir leaves, fish mint (for salads), and banana fingers competing for space next to curry pastes and soup bases, Thai tea and coffee, a selection of sauces, seasonings and canned fish from Australia. The helpful staff will gladly explain how to use the products and encourage the exploration of Thai cooking.
Across the street, Mabuhay Filipino Food Store focuses on food from--surprise!--the Philippines. The Maglinao family has owned the friendly store since 1990. Purple-loving people might be drawn to frozen grated ube (purple yam), especially if they've eaten the famous violet cake with whipped-cream frosting from the Red Ribbon Bakery in Los Angeles.
Other Filipino products available include frozen banana leaves, pork lumpia, pork meat pies, whole mung beans, pancit noodles and a banana sauce that looks and tastes like ketchup. An adjacent restaurant serves traditional Filipino food such as chicken adobo (stew), pancit noodles and pinakbet (vegetables). During summer, halo halo made with tropical fruits, shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk rivals any smoothie.
Next door sits the tiny Tudor Rose tea room with a small to-go section. Owner Priscilla Slaughter mentioned the most popular items: bistro gravy granules, Typhoo tea, frozen kippers and bangers, and canned spotted dick (sponge cake) topped with Devon custard.
Walk into Caravan Middle Eastern Foods, where exotic spices permeate the air. Locally owned for the past 18 years by the Khalifa family, Caravan sells popular items such as fresh lamb and goat meat, dried fruits, bulk olives, Greek cheeses, teas and spices. Enjoy the hallumi cheese. Slice; grill in a pan with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with fresh herbs, then put in a pita. Bulk nuts, pistachio candy, breads, baklava, lentils and the cutest espresso cups in a hat box line the walls. Try some fresh fava beans, made famous by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.
Who knew that Tropical Foods was hidden in the back of a strip mall? According to the owner, Sandra Minjarez, customers from Argentina, Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil and Cuba have been finding their way there for the past six years to buy Caribbean and South American products under the Goya label. Guava rules with paste, jelly, juice and soda. Crack open those Jamaican cookbooks and take advantage of jerk seasonings, frozen cassava leaves, canned yucca root and plantain flour.
Cookbook author Carolyn Niethammer recently confided that Barrio Anita held the promise to the best hand-pulled tortillas. Wedged between the railroad tracks to the east, the Interstate 10 retaining wall to the west and St. Mary's Road to the south, Barrio Anita has two claims to fame: One is three must-see murals on Oury Street, and the second is the Anita Street Market.
Owned by Mario and Grace Soto for the past 22 years, but now managed by daughter Sonya, the market specializes in five styles of freshly made tortillas, which can also be found at B-Line and Lerua's, to name a couple of places. Arrive by mid-morning while packages of tortillas are still hot to the touch. Don't leave without an empanada or six. Savor the warm, cream cheese pillow enveloped in divine dough then kissed with cinnamon sugar--the Mexican twist on Danish pastries.
Hungry? Broaden your culinary curiosity, and start exploring ...