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The latest entry is cause for real celebration: 99 Ranch Market, a 29-unit, California-based operation, with outposts in Honolulu, Las Vegas and, now, Arizona. Arizonans, accustomed to mom-and-pop ethnic shops, haven't seen anything like it.
This 30,000-square-foot behemoth dwarfs every other ethnic outlet in town. The selection, as you might imagine, is nothing short of staggering.
I wandered the aisles for about an hour, mouth agape. The most impressive part of the store is the seafood section. At first glance, it's hard to know if you're in a market or Sea World. That's because so much of the fish is live. Look for lobster, crab, tilapia, catfish, mussels, oysters, geoduck and clams. The species that aren't alive look like they were pulled out of the water only hours before. Spread over ice are bright-eyed mullet, milkfish, squid, yellowtail, striped bass and snapper. You can also get frozen octopus, squid, cuttlefish and snow-crab meat.
The meat section offers a complete butcher shop. Sure, you can come here for steaks, chops and chicken. But you can also get pork ears, duck tongues and parts of animals your local supermarket probably doesn't carry.
The produce section is impressive for two reasons: variety and price. I didn't know there were at least five kinds of bok choy. You'll find gai-lan (Chinese broccoli); giant, 18-inch-long Chinese okra; longans; star fruit; and durian, a large, net-covered fruit with a spiked shell outside, a creamy, custardlike texture inside and a foul aroma. You'll also find wonderful Japanese eggplant for 69 cents a pound, compared to the $3-a-pound tariff inflicted by standard American supermarkets.
I'm not much taken by Asian sweets. Desserts, I've discovered, don't translate very well between cultures. But if you're into the likes of taro cake, red bean tarts and date buns, you'll find them and their brethren at 99 Ranch Market's bakery.
The shelves are stocked with products from just about every Asian country. Do you need dried sardines, bamboo leaves or pickled cucumber? How about grass jelly, canned sugar cane or lychees in heavy syrup? You'll also discover 10 different kinds of rice, dozens of packaged noodles and jars of every kind of sauce imaginable.
A tour of this place can make you hungry. Fortunately, there's a quick-service food area where you can quell your appetite. I ordered a three-item veggie platter--a heaping pile of wonderful eggplant, gai-lan and crunchy Szechuan green beans, served with fried rice. At $4.29, I couldn't complain about the price, either.
99 Ranch Market is the first store up and running at the new Chinese Cultural Center. In the next few months, the complex will also be home to eight Chinese restaurants and 12 retail shops. I can't wait.
99 Ranch Market is at 668 North 44th Street, just south of Route 202, at Gateway Boulevard. It's open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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