In New York City, there are more Jews than in Tel Aviv and more Puerto Ricans than in San Juan. Guatemalans in Los Angeles outnumber those in every Guatemalan city except the capital. Count just L.A.'s Iranians, and the city's population would still top Baltimore's. Only Warsaw has more Poles than Chicago. San Francisco's Chinatown houses the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. Miami? It's unclear whether it's the southern edge of the United States, or a northern outpost of Cuba.
In contrast, Phoenix is hardly the first choice of the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. This town has always been pretty white bread. In 1997, for instance, the entire state welcomed a grand total of 1,494 immigrants who made Arizona their first U.S. stop. That's barely enough to fill up every other seat in Symphony Hall.
But though Phoenix remains overwhelmingly Anglo (with, of course, a substantial, longtime Mexican presence), the numbers are changing. In the 1990s, new ethnic communities -- Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, even African -- have sprung up, migrating from other parts of the United States. And they've brought their foods with them. While Phoenix can scarcely match the culinary variety and vibrancy you find in other urban centers, at least our ethnic food scene is now showing genuine signs of life.
Much of that life comes from ethnic markets, which cater to homesick natives looking for Old Country goodies our supermarkets don't carry. What follows is a far-from-comprehensive list of some of the more interesting Valley international shops, where you can taste the world without vaccinations, jet lag or visas. (I've left out south-of-the-border food markets, since they've been part of local life ever since the first modern American settlers arrived 130 years ago.)
99 Ranch Market, 668 North 44th Street (COFCO Chinese Cultural Center), Phoenix, 602-275-6699.
The Asian stock markets may still be slumping, but the Valley's Asian food markets are booming. Part of the reason is 99 Ranch Market, a huge chain with outposts in California, Nevada, Hawaii and, for the past two years, Arizona.
This 30,000-square-foot behemoth dwarfs just about every other ethnic outlet in town. The fish, meat and produce sections are staggering. (I didn't know there were at least five different kinds of bok choy.) The in-store bakery puts out sweets like red bean tarts and date buns. The shelves are stocked with goods from every Asian country. (You never know when you may need dried sardines, bamboo leaves or grass jelly.) You'll also find every kind of sauce and condiment imaginable. And since just walking around here can make you hungry, you can get a Chinese food fix at the quick-service food area.
Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket, 2025 North Dobson, Chandler, 480-899-2887.
In June, Lee Lee moved a few miles south to shiny new megadigs, at the northeastern corner of Dobson and Warner. This store could become an East Valley tourist attraction.
The produce section features everything from durian (a sweet-flavored, foul-smelling, melonlike fruit) to Thai eggplant. The meat counter displays duck feet and pork uterus. In the seafood section, live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia and carp cavort in tanks, while more than two dozen species of gleaming fresh fish rest on ice. The bakery features traditional Asian goodies like Vietnamese tapioca cakes and banana rice cakes. Acres of aisles display enough rice, noodles and canned goods to supply the People's Army for a year. And if you're shopping for gems, you can check them out at the in-store jewelry mart.
New Jersey Italian Grocery & Deli, 15003 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 602-971-7174.
I don't think the friendly New Jersey proprietors could have moved here of their own free will. I believe they were deported for violating New Jersey's strict retail rudeness code.
But this place can't help making folks happy. Sitting on top of the counter is a platter of fresh fried eggplant. Overstuffed sandwiches are made with Italian bread baked right here, and garnished with fresh basil plucked out of a flower pot. Hot platters of homemade sausage and peppers and baked ziti smack you in the face with their aromas. There's a variety of imported cheeses and fresh mozzarella. In the freezer sit homemade ravioli and gnocchi, and you can order fresh fettuccine, linguini and spaghetti. Desserts taste like they just came out of the old neighborhood: The cannoli are worth every calorie, and so is the sfogliatelle, a shell-shaped pastry made with flaky dough filled with citrusy ricotta custard.
Guido's Chicago Meat & Deli, 10893 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-951-0636.
After a few minutes in this attractive store, don't be surprised if you start talking with your hands.
Make your way over to the display case, where roasted peppers, olives, marinated artichokes, mushrooms and a cucumber-tomato mix compete for your attention. I'm partial to the outstanding calamari salad, lovely tender squid tossed with a bit of celery to give it some crunch. On the shelves you'll find Italian pasta, imported sauces, olive oil and pickled veggies. Grab some homemade ravioli out of the freezer -- they cook up beautifully in just a few minutes.
Guido's kitchen also turns out hot foods. Calzone, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana and sausage and peppers are the real thing.
Haji Baba, 1513 East Apache, Tempe, 480-894-1905.
You don't need a magic carpet to take a ride to the Middle East. You just need wheels and enough gas to make it to Tempe.
Walk down the aisles of this well-stocked place and you'll get a tour of the region. There's fig jam from Lebanon, Tunisian harissa, Moroccan sardines and Persian spices. The shelves are filled with olive oils, exotic fruit juices and rose water. I even spotted sugar-coated chickpeas, popular candy in Syria. You can pick up henna and molasses tobacco, as well.
Hungry? Haji Baba is a market and restaurant. The koubideh sandwich -- grilled ground beef marinated in onion juice and spices -- is especially fetching.
Yusef's, 15238 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 602-867-2957.
This spiffy shop demonstrates that, at the very least, the foods of the Middle East can live peaceably together.
The crowded shelves are lined with everything from canned Israeli olives and Persian wax hair remover to Lebanese green beans and Bulgarian eggplant dip. Choose from French, Greek and Bulgarian feta cheese in the refrigerated case. (Bulgarian, the sharpest and saltiest, is my choice.) You'll find the regional breads to go with them, too, like lahvosh and barberi.
Yusef's also carries essential paraphernalia. Pick up a hubba-bubba (a tobacco water pipe) or a tea set.
Take a load off and enjoy a homemade cashew baklava, washed down with strong Turkish coffee or hot mint tea. Then come back for an inexpensive dinner featuring kebabs, kafta and kibbi.
India House of Spices, 5054 East McDowell, Phoenix, 602-244-1166.
Step into this Indian market and you'll say, "Ghee, wiz." (Ghee is a form of clarified butter, essential in Indian cooking.)
Indian food is noted for its complex blend of spices, and you'll find just about all of the ones Columbus was searching for here. You'll also run across a range of achar in jars and cans, hot pickled condiments that complement India's dishes. A small produce section houses veggies you don't see in most neighborhood supermarkets. In the freezer case there's kulfi, exotic ice cream flavored with saffron or figs, as well as microwaveable chickpea snackies.
Out of Brahmi oil? It's supposed to cure everything from dandruff to insomnia, and it's on the shelf. And the large selection of home-country videos can help keep up your Hindi language skills.
Cactus Kosher Foods, 8005 East Indian School, Scottsdale, 480-970-8441.
The proprietors here have to deal with more than picky customers. They have to answer to a higher authority. I don't think either party will have any complaints.
You'll find jars, cans and packets of all the familiar Lower East Side brands -- Manischewitz, Rokeach, Hebrew National, Goodson's, Mother's and Gold's -- offering the full range of products: borscht, schav, gefilte fish, pickles, matzoh ball mix, horseradish. Stop at the freezer case and pick up kishka, a heart-stopping mix of grain and fat. The meats are glatt kosher -- even more strictly supervised than ordinary kosher. Naturally, you'll find yahrzeit candles (to mark the anniversary of a loved one's death) and shabbas candles, lit just before sundown on Friday to welcome the Sabbath.
Edelweiss German Deli & Cafe, 13439 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 602-482-8608.
"Dieters Beware" reads the sign on the door of this tidy little shop. That won't keep me out.
This is the kind of place that can make you spontaneously break out into "Deutschland Über Alles." The cases are filled with more than two dozen kinds of meats and sausages, imported from New York and Chicago. Check out the German cheeses, herring and jars of pork fat.
The owners do some cooking of their own. The homemade sauerkraut, studded with bacon, is nothing short of magical. Vinegary German potato salad and smoky ham salad are also irresistible. You'll also be tempted by the cherry strudel -- go ahead, give in to temptation.
British Gourmet Ltd., 7901 East Thomas, Scottsdale, 480-994-3837.
We kicked the Redcoats out more than 200 years ago. But they've still got an outpost in Scottsdale.
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This funky storefront shows you why the sun never sets on the British culinary empire. Look for familiar names: Crosse & Blackwell condiments, Cadbury chocolates, Colman's mustard, Major Grey's chutney, Walker's shortbread, Robertson's jams, Lyle's treacle. In the refrigerated cases you'll spot Devonshire cream, English butter and cheeses, crumpets, meat pies and frozen kippers. Stiff-upper-lip types will be pleased to know they'll never have to do without Marmite and mushy peas. And if you want to know what's going on in Parliament, or look at pictures of seminude women, you can grab a home country newspaper from the rack.
Ethio Market, 1617 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 602-286-0766.
This sparsely stocked storefront brings a little bit of Addis Ababa to the desert Southwest. There's almost nothing on the shelves except little bags of beef jerky and Ethiopian spices: cardamom, ginger, garlic, red-pepper awaze and the blend used to prepare alicha dishes. You can also take home injera, the country's signature bread that Ethiopians use instead of cutlery to scoop up food. It's spongelike, and slightly sour, and looks like what you'd get if you mated a tortilla with a crepe. If you wish, the pleasant owner will whip up a traditional wat (stew) so you can have something to scoop up with it. Native garb and crafts will also catch your eye.