Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Marukai Market: Competition in Kearny Mesa? Sadly, Not Yet


In recent months, those of us who love Asian markets have been eagerly anticipating the opening of Marukai Market in Kearny Mesa. Last year, the Japanese company had taken over the southeast corner of Balboa and Mercury, just off the 163. The three buildings in the little shopping center had previously housed an unfinished furniture store and mattress stores, so it took some renovating to bring in the grocery store, which finally opened earlier this month; Marukai Living, a strange hybrid of housewares, health care, clothing and other items; and Daiso, a very cool $1.50 store. The latter two opened late last year.

Marukai Market was the last of the trio to open and I must have stopped by there two or three times thinking it was ready, only to find newspaper ads papering the glass walls and the doors still shuttered. So, I was almost breathless when I finally got to walk in and see what they had to offer. It would have to be special. After all, the large, established Mitsuwa Marketplace is just down the street on Mercury and the lovely Nijiya Market with its organic produce and on-site bakery is perhaps half a mile away on Convoy (not to mention Zion, the large Korean market, which is just across Balboa). I was primed to fall in love.

Unfortunately, it has been a not-so-grand opening and there’s no love in my heart. I’ve been to the store three times this month, including a trip with renowned Japanese cooking teacher Mineko Moreno, and have been terribly disappointed. The store itself is very small, but even so shelves are chronically understocked as is the produce department. Most of the fish is frozen. The take away sushi counter is tiny and unimpressive. And, to make matters worse, the market is freezing. Poor Mineko could barely keep from shivering and even I, always more comfortable on the cool side, was ready to bolt after 20 minutes.

Since my goal is to showcase not diminish places that offer interesting foodstuff, I am reluctant to say don’t go. You’ll find a lot of great stuff at Marukai. It’s simply that you’ll find the same and more at Mitsuwa and Nijiya.

Of course, one of the benefits of visiting the store with Mineko was getting her take on many of the items at the store. So, I did return and pick up some things that stood out.

One of my favorite dishes when I go out for sushi or stop by the market is seaweed salad. I love the ocean overtones and how the seaweed’s texture can be simultaneously chewy and crunchy. Marukai sells a nice little chukka seaweed salad, which Mineko pointed out is actually Chinese, not Japanese. I picked up a package of the salad, along with a package of combination sushi and a crunchy shrimp roll. I enjoyed the chukka, but the sushi was a little tired; the crunchy shrimp roll, for instance, not so crunchy.

In the noodle aisle, Mineko pointed out the vast variety of dry noodles that seem very similar, but she pulled out one package that is unique, buckwheat soba noodles (Jyuuwari Soba Nisshin) that are made only with buckwheat flour. Most others also contain wheat flour. These, she said, are a little challenging to cook—don’t rinse them before cooking because they’ll turn into mush, but do rinse them after. However, the flavor is worth the extra care in preparation.

Mineko was pleased, I think, with the selection of pickled vegetables. There were packages of pickled garlic, one sweet, one more savory. I can’t resist garlic and wanted to try something a little different, so I bought the sweet garlic, or shiba ninniku zuke, which contains soy sauce, sugar, honey, vinegar, smoked shaved bonito and lemon. They are, indeed, sweetly tangy and I’ve enjoyed snacking on these a lot.

I wasn't as fond of the pickled eggplant, although I loved the crazy deep blue purple color. It’s a simple pickle of eggplant and vinegar, but the flavor was too harsh for me. It may just have been the particular brand I bought or perhaps it’s something that is tastier in the context of other dishes. When I go to eat at Sakura, they usually offer a small plate of pickled vegetables with the main dish and I wonder if I would like them as much if I were just eating them on their own.

My favorite, though, may have been the pickled daikon radish. I’m a sucker for this and the small pre-sliced package I picked up was particularly good.

Usually, these are added to noodles, but at heart I'm a nosher, so I enjoy munching on them solo. Mineko singled out a different package of daikon called bettarazuke, which she said are softer and very sweet compared to other daikon. Another pickled item that she eats everyday is pickled plum, of which Marukai has several varieties.

Mineko pointed out a wide selection of rakkyo, or pickled shallot, that are widely served with curry. In the same display area was something I’ll return for called Oden, a favorite of Mineko. These are little pieces of molded mousse-like fish, very mild in flavor, that create a popular winter soup dish. Blanche them briefly and add to a broth with winter root vegetables and simmer for about 30 minutes, according to Mineko.

The meats at Marukai looked interesting. They carry both Kobe-style and Kobe beef for shabu shabu. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the real deal and the imitation. The Kobe’s marbling is constant, almost like tiny capillaries running through the meat. Kobe-style marbling is chunkier, thicker, not as refined.

At Mineko’s suggestion, I later picked up an interesting product I hadn’t noticed before, soy wrappers.

They come in five colors: turmeric yellow, sesame, paprika orange, spinach green and original soy. These are pretty little sheets that you can obviously use to make sushi rolls, but also can be a colorful “salad bowl” or be stacked with vegetables to make a fun appetizer. This is a summer-like product and with all the rain and cold weather, I haven’t tried them yet.

Finally, we hit the snack aisles. Months ago I had toured Nijiya with Mineko and got hooked on a kid’s snack, “Hot’N Spicy” teriyaki nori, little strips of roasted nori with soy sauce, sweet sake and chili pepper. I was happy to find that Marukai also sells it and bought a couple of packages.

I pointed out to Mineko my favorite cookie, a little pinched disc that looks like a cookie version of Frosted Flakes but has a wonderfully zesty bite of ginger. The package says they’re called Funaoka Shoga Tsumami. I love eating them with green tea in the late afternoon.

Mineko, on the other hand, is addicted to Karinto cookies (Gokubuto Kuro Karinto). Made with wheat flour and brown sugar, they look like stubby pretzels and taste like molasses. She likes to crumble them and scatter the pieces on ice cream.

I’m hoping that after this first month of their being open Marukai gets it together and not only fully stocks the store (honestly, how can you have so little rice available?) but begins to offer something more that would draw customers in who otherwise would choose Mitsuwa or Nijiya. If you find that your experience at Marukai is better than mine have been, please let me know.

Marukai Market is located at 8151 Balboa Ave. (Note: this is supposedly a membership market, but nobody at the registers asked if I had a card or wanted to join. Perhaps this will change? My calls to the company haven't been returned.)

Have some thoughts about Marukai Market or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:


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