Ethnic Grocers

Every Chicago neighborhood worth its salt (sea, kosher, pickling, or otherwise) is home to an ethnic market or two—from mom-and-pop Mexican mercados in Little Village and Polish delis on the Northwest Side to the all-encompassing new breed of ethnic superstore. We surveyed a slew; here, the best destinations.

Superstores

GRAND MART
Part of a Virginia-based Korean supermarket chain, Grand Mart has put down roots in Chicago, taking residence in seven locations recently vacated by Cub Foods. Discount shopping, the theme here, has never seen such variety: produce spans the globe from Asia to Latin America, and each aisle devotes considerable real estate to a smart selection of ethnic bottled and canned goods that includes harder-to-find items for cooking Indian and Jamaican food. The whole fish are gloriously packed on ice and invitingly clean. Also spotted: 12 varieties of Latin American crema, gooey yam cakes and gelatinous jellyfish, low-sodium Goya canned beans, enough brands of chicharrones to fuel a heart attack, and an outstanding dried pepper and spice selection. 4821 W. North Ave.; 773-252-9300, plus six other locations

H MART
The recently opened local installment of another national Korean chain, H Mart contains multitudes: a bakery; a small-appliance center; the obligatory food court (we like the mandoo soup at the last stall on the row); kimchi cases; a vast selection of frozen dumplings and fresh noodles; towering stacks of bagged rice; and a seafood counter offering exotic selections, such as conch and whole squid. But this massive market’s real draw is the produce department, which houses a globetrotting array of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and affordably priced fresh herbs, not to mention many hard-to-find ingredients such as burdock root, taro, and galangal—all under one roof. The crowds in the evenings and on the weekends suggest a high turnover rate for the fresh goods. 801 Civic Center Dr., Niles; 847-581-1212

INTERNATIONAL CLUB
Offering warehouse shopping with a Chinese bent, International Club ditched its membership policy a few years back. It’s still a drafty cavern with a decidedly fishy aroma, but don’t turn up your nose; instead, follow it to this destination’s main draw: a backroom housing tank upon tank of live seafood, from Dungeness crab to littleneck clams to largemouth bass. You’ll notice lingering evidence of a bulk-buy mindset—gallons of cooking wine next to five-pound bags of dried mushrooms—but you can buy in smaller quantities for home cooking, and the sheer volume of Chinese goods is unparalleled and fairly cheap. At the very least, a trip to International Club is a gawker’s paradise—look in the coolers for frozen alligator and cooked pork blood. 4000 W. 40th St.; 773-927-0100

MITSUWA
Any devotee of Japanese cuisine will have a field day at this soy-filled fantasyland of tofu and miso. This is also the place to find yards of nori for making your own maki sushi; cases of lovely sashimi-grade fish; every kind of dish-specific sauce you might need; and a rainbow of packaged mochi. Don’t skip the delectable Tokyo-style pastries at the in-store bakery, whose cakelike white bread—called shokupan—is a delicious substitute for dessert when toasted and frosted with butter and jam. If you’re hungry, make a pit stop at the exceptional food court, packed with sushi, authentic ramen (try the spicy soup with special pork on the side), and bubble tea. You can also browse the store’s interesting selection of housewares—kitchen sponges, spatulas, strainers, wastebaskets, baby bath toys—brought directly from Japan. 100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-956-6699

PETE'S FRESH MARKET
Popular with professional cooks for its vast produce department, Pete’s stocks numerous varieties of fresh peppers—we counted seven—in addition to xoconostles, also known as prickly-pear fruit, and fresh chickpeas. Pete’s also scores high marks for its comprehensive butcher counter: beef tripe, pork feet, and turkey tails. Standard raw meats are also well represented and, for cooks who don’t require organic everything, Pete’s can be the smart choice for items like skirt steak, the traditional fajita cut—which hasn’t suffered pointless price inflation here—at an eminently reasonable $3.99 per pound (don’t miss the fresh chorizo at $2.39 a pound). An island cooler brims with cheese (pair a slice of manchego with a slice of membrillo, or quince paste, for a no-fuss appetizer), and we did a double take at the aisle dedicated to canned peppers, available in increments from seven ounces to six pounds. 4700 S. Kedzie Ave.; 773-523-4600, plus four other locations

* * *

 

 

 

Smaller, Still Super

CAPUTO'S
A suburban mainstay for decades, Caputo’s is the stuff of local mythmaking. Opened in 1958 by husband-and-wife immigrants Angelo and Romana Caputo, the store brought authentic Italian foodstuffs to an America that was just waking up to gourmet cooking. Now greatly expanded, Caputo’s still offers a dynamite deli selection of prosciutto and pancetta, and its own brand of cheeses crafted by Angelo’s brother, Pasquale. Romana passed away in 2004, but the in-house line of sweets and baked goods, La Bella Romana, and the prepared deli dishes pay ode to her memory through her recipes. We can’t get enough of the almond pastries, and regulars clamor for the octopus salad. 2560 N. Harlem Ave., Elmwood Park; 708-453-0155, plus four other suburban locations

CONTE DE SAVOIA
EUROPEAN SPECIALTIES
Michael and Anna Di Cosola were born in Bari, Italy, and took over ownership of this elegant little shop in 1982. Groups of gray-haired Italian American men still sit at the café tables, drinking coffee and reminiscing over that bygone era. The store houses most of the necessary ingredients for a committed Italian cook, from lacy slices of nutty prosciutto di Parma to a beautiful imported pasta dyed with squid ink. Entire aisles are devoted to fine imported olive oils and sweet, undoctored Italian-style canned tomatoes. On the weekends, Anna makes her own sweet and slightly tangy fresh mozzarella. House-made salads like artichoke and puttanesca with olives are lively with acidity and deeply flavorful. Excellent frozen ravioli, tortellone, and lasagne offer delicious respite for even the most exacting home cook. 1438 W. Taylor St., 312-666-3471 and 2227 W. Taylor, 312-666-4335; contedisavoia.com

D’ANDREA ITALIAN MARKET
Any Italian deli worth its salt carries prosciutto di Parma, but this hidden gem offers the less commonly found prosciutto di San Daniele. From the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the ham has a smooth texture and a delicate, sweet taste with a distinctive finish. It would be divine paired with one of D’Andrea’s aged Parmigiano-Reggianos or another of its myriad imported and domestic cheeses. Asiago, fresh pecorino, fresh ricotta, manteche, locatelli, and mascarpone are of excellent quality. The shop also makes chewy pizza dough to be shaped at home, or preformed and parbaked. 7055 W. Cermak Rd., Berwyn; 708-484-8121

KAUFMAN'S BAGEL & DELI
When it comes to corned beef, some like it fatty and some lean. At Kaufman’s you can have it both ways. Unlike most delis, which serve only marbled slices, this Skokie institution will separate the fat from the meat to order. They even sell slices of near pure fat, known as deckle. The bottom line: the more fat in the cut, the more profound the melt-in-your-mouth experience. The deli—a snug operation next to Kaufman’s equally renowned bagel bakery—has a top-notch selection of flaky smoked fish, including locally produced chub and whitefish, as well as Nova lox from vaunted New York suppliers like Acme Smoked Fish. 4905 W. Dempster St., Skokie; 847-677-9880

CREMERIA SANTA MARIA
There’s no direct Spanish translation for the word “deli,” but this superb Little Village cremería comes as close as any Mexican store you’ll find. The refrigerator case houses a variety of high-quality Mexican cheeses, sour creams, and containers of cajeta, sweetened caramelized milk often used as a filling for desserts. Some cheeses, like the salty, pungent Cotija, are imported, but most are made domestically in an authentic style. A local producer stocks the store with excellent fresh chorizo, and typical Mexican deli meats like ham and headcheese can be purchased by the pound. A flavorful base for mole requires only the addition of tomatoes. Many go just for the delicious frozen tamales, imported from Jalisco. 3424 W. 26th St.; 773-277-1760

MIDDLE EASTERN BAKERY
Andersonville has changed since Hisham Khalifeh, the owner of the bakery, left his home near Jerusalem and set up shop there in 1982. Young bohemian residents now shop for yogurt and spices alongside Lebanese grandmothers. The shop makes 12 kinds of garlicky hummus, as well as spreads like tabouleh, tzatziki, and baba ghannouj. Freshness of ingredients and authenticity make these side dishes worth a trip. Eat them on the bakery’s fresh, chewy pita, which far surpasses the crusty hard loaves found in most groceries. Khalifeh says he personally uses only olive oil his mother sends from her Jerusalem grove, but he carries an impressive selection of imported oils for the rest of us to enjoy. 1512 W. Foster Ave.; 773-561-2224

PATEL BROTHERS
The Patel empire now extends to a national chain of Indian groceries—but you wouldn’t know it from the company’s unassuming Devon Avenue store, the relocated flagship that started it all in 1974. Resembling the tidiest of kitchen pantries, the shop’s cubbylike shelves house an apothecary of chutneys, pickles, and spices. There’s no bakery or deli, and produce is limited, but regulars rely on Patel for affordable basics including beans, grains, nuts, and the 20-pound sacks of rice sandbagging the aisles. No visit is complete without sweets; look for Reena’s ice cream in flavors including fig and cashew raisin, and ready-to-heat gulab jamun, or syrup-soaked fried dough. 2610 W. Devon Ave.; 773-262-7777

WALLY'S MARKET
If you’re Polish—and even if you’re not—Wally’s is surely a regular stop for more than the delicious ready-to-heat borscht and staples like pickled herring and paprikash. The butcher counter, where kielbasa sausages hang glamorously before a mirrored backdrop, is a destination unto itself; it also offers an overwhelming selection of sauerkraut. Visit the liquor kiosk for hard-to-find Ukrainian honey-pepper vodka and Warka beer. Pop fans can get their fix, too, thanks to an extensive soda and juice selection. Look for the Monastryrskiy Kvas label, depicting a stein-hoisting monk, in flavors from black currant to honey. 6601 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-427-1616, plus two other locations

* * *

 

 

 

Great Goods

The raison d'être of the ethnic market is to import authentic pantry staples from native lands—but of seven available brands of fish sauce which, pray tell, is the very best one? We pressed some trustworthy insiders to decode and identify.

PATEL BROTHERS 2610 W. Devon Ave.; 773-262-7777, plus one other area location (1) Tamarind chutney, Swad, $2.29 (2) Tikka masala (simmering sauce made with coriander, lemon, turmeric), Patak’s, $2.79 (3) Ghee (clarified butter), Swad, $3.49

TREASURE ISLAND 3460 N. Broadway; 773-327-3880, plus other area locations (4) Hot German mustard, Hengstenberg, $3.19 (5) Tahini (ground sesame seed paste), Krinos, $3.99 (6) Extra virgin olive oil, Titan, $9.98 (7) Taramosalata (caviar-style carp roe dip), Krinos, $2.89

H MART 801 Civic Center Dr., Niles; 847-581-1212 (8) Galbi marinade (for beef), Chungjungwon, $5.99

CARNICERIA TIANGUIS 2722 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-276-3505, plus one other area location (9) Sazón (seasoning salt), Goya, $1.39 (10) Recaito (cilantro-based seasoning sauce), Goya, $1.29 (11) Crema, V & V Supremo, 99 cents (12) Habanero chili sauce, El Yucateco, $1.49 (13) Hot sauce, Tapatío, 99 cents (14) Sofrito (tomato- based seasoning sauce), Goya, $1.19

RICHWELL MARKET 1835 S. Canal St.; 312-492-7170, plus one other area location (15) Sweet chili sauce, Mae Ploy, $1.99 (16) Sesame oil, Kadoya, $2.39 (17) White miso (soybean paste), Kurano Kaori, $5.25 (18) Chili radish in soy sauce, Lotus Wei-Chuan, $1.59 (19) Wasabi, S & B, $1.79 (20) Fish sauce, Viet Huong/Three Crabs, $3.45 (21) Rice vinegar, Marukan, $2.89 (22) Black rice vinegar, Chinkiang, $1.09 (23) Lap cheung Chinese sausage, Wing Wing, $4.19 (24) Aji-mirin (sweet rice cooking wine), Kikkoman, $3.99 (25) Shao hsing cooking wine, Liang, $2.25 (26) Oyster sauce, Lee Kum Kee, $3.39 (27) Hoisin sauce, Koon Chun, $1.89

AL-KHYAM 4738 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-583-3077 (28) Date syrup, Ziyad, $4.59

PAULINA MEAT MARKET 3501 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-6272 (29) Sauerkraut, Gundelsheim, $4.90 (30) Sweet Bavarian mustard, Burkhardt, $4 (31) Anchovies, Roland, $1.85

SULTAN'S MARKET 2057 W. North Ave.; 773-235-3072, plus one other location (32) Pomegranate molasses, Sultan, $4

SUPER TONY'S FINER FOODS 2099 N. Mannheim Rd., Melrose Park; 708-345-4700, plus other Tony’s Finer Foods locations (33) Marinara sauce, Pomì, $2.99 (34) Jerk seasoning (Jamaican dry spice blend), Walkerswood, $4.29

<< BACK TO FOOD LOVER'S GUIDE