BEST STRIP MALL FOR HOMESICK SOMALIS 2005 | 5050 East McDowell Road | Shopping & Services | Phoenix
According to the Somali Association of Arizona, there are more than 5,000 Somalis living in Arizona. The majority of them have moved to Phoenix in the past five years, and the Somali presence is especially noticeable along McDowell Road in east Phoenix. Indeed, the unnamed strip mall located at the northwest corner of 51st Street and McDowell should be dubbed "Little Mogadishu," or "Little Somalia," or, perhaps more romantically, "The Horn of Africa," as it is quickly filling up with Somali businesses and seems to be something of a Somali social center. There's the brand-new Juba Restaurant, a somewhat higher-end cousin to the bare-bones African Cafeteria; a Somali dress shop; and the Café Internationale, where off-work Somali men watch soccer on a big-screen TV. There's still a Subway sandwich shop present, a bar called the Rework Lounge, and a massage parlor curiously named "Friction Massage." But the Somali influence seems to be on the increase, at least in this little corner of town, and we can think of nothing cooler for the PHX.


The strip mall at 3411 West Northern Avenue

Screw the travel agent. In a tiny strip mall near 35th Avenue and Northern, you can go from San Salvador to Sarajevo in under 10 seconds, just by walking from Hugo's Salvadorean Restaurant on one end to Cafe Sarajevo on the other. At Hugo's, you'll wish you'd brought your Spanish phrasebook along, as you point out a plate of pork and bean pupusas for yourself and watch soccer on the small TV set in the corner of this humble yet clean enterprise. Then you can waddle over to Cafe Sarajevo for an entirely different experience: flat-screen TVs playing Slavic music videos; a freshly painted interior with Bosnian cityscapes drawn on the walls; groceries and soft drinks from the region for sale; and a menu that includes Bosnian or Turkish coffee and a sandwich stuffed with little sausages called cevapi and topped with onions, sour cream and ajvar, a condiment of eggplant and peppers. One trip to this strip mall, and already you're a world traveler. Who knew globetrotting could be so fattening?
Until a long-established Phoenician friend of ours from Jordan turned us on to it, we had no idea that one of the best Middle Eastern grocery stores in the Valley was right under our noses. Like a small, shimmering oasis, Baiz (pronounced "bays") Market appears out of nowhere, a nondescript white 1950s building in the middle of a quiet residential area between Van Buren and Jefferson streets, with painted signs in English humbly identifying it as a bakery, grocery and meat market. But enter its unobtrusive doors and you're greeted by bouncy Arabic pop music, row upon row of neat aisles overflowing with classic Middle Eastern cooking ingredients and prepared foodstuffs, and Al-Hana, a mini-restaurant/bakery/deli section centered on a wood-fueled oven. Al-Hana serves up, for both eat-in and takeout customers, a host of tempting treats like shish taook (grilled chicken with pickles and garlic) and soujouk (grilled sausage with pickles and tomato), but you have to try one of its freshly concocted bread pies in your choice of meat, cheese, thyme-and-tomato or vegetable, along with traditional sides like tabbouleh, fattoush and hummus. Trust us.

We quickly filled up an entire shopping cart with primo olive oils from Lebanon and Turkey, halvah with pistachios, Turkish Delight candy we haven't seen since Istanbul, grape leaves for making sarma, phyllo dough, kadaifi (a sort of hairy version of phyllo), and labne, a Lebanese cream-cheese-like spread made from yogurt that is irresistible when mixed with mint, sumac, parsley, salt and olive oil and slathered on fresh pita. The cheese and pastries sections alone are worth a trip to Baiz -- how many places offer French, Bulgarian, Greek and Danish feta, along with at least 10 different types of marinated olives? And for those of the Muslim persuasion, this is the place to get halal meats, poultry and other food prepared in accordance with Islamic din.

Why do we like Lee Lee so much? Well, let's just say there's another ethnic market somewhere in the Valley that we've visited and sometimes found dead fish floating in the fish tank. We've never seen that at Lee Lee. Rather, each section is well-kept and unusually clean considering the sheer volume of people who shop at Lee Lee on any given day. Moreover, the produce, no matter how exotic, looks fresh, and there's a variety of dry goods from so many different Asian countries, including India, Thailand, China, Japan and Singapore. You name it and Lee Lee probably has it -- if it comes from that part of the world. Why, Lee Lee is so cosmopolitan, so filled with shoppers of so many ethnicities, that we only wish they'd open up a branch nearer to central Phoenix.
There is one place in the Valley you can score authentic Chinese baked goods. 99 Ranch Market in the Chinese Cultural Center is the best alternative to laying your hands on a slice of Asian goodness short of driving hundreds of miles to the nearest Chinatown. Behind the glass cases, Taiwanese cakes, complete with light cream (instead of spackle-like butter-cream) frosting, shine as fresh fruit piled on the tops glistens under the lights. After tossing the cake into your cart, throw in some baos (buns of golden goodness) packed with exotic fillings like taro root, lotus seed and red bean paste. With the bakery at 99 Ranch, you have to wonder why so many settle for a fortune cookie when they can tuck into the real Asian deal for dessert.
The Japanese have got tons of wacky snacks, and no place in town offers better evidence of this benign cultural stereotype than the west-side Japanese grocery store New Tokyo Food Market, which has the best selection we've seen in town. At New Tokyo, you'll find dried squid snacks like "Let's Party Squid," dried sea eel that looks like pork rinds, "WasabaBeef" potato chips that -- you guessed it -- combine the flavors of wasabi and beef, crackers flavored with sea urchin and shrimp, as well as myriad snacks made with seaweed and/or sesame. The sweet side of the equation includes green-tea-flavored candies, assorted rice cookies, sweet potato cookies, white kiku anuchi confections with red bean on the inside, and a dozen different kinds of Pocky, or cookie sticks, including choco-banana and lemon cheesecake. Wash it all down with a melon cream soda or a Pokka milk coffee, and then get the rest of your shopping done before you blow up like Shamu, dood.
Despite our love of new technology, we sometimes need a little blast from the past. Although soda shops were filled on weekend date nights back in the 1950s, after they vanished, flavored sodas mostly went with them. If you're hunting for the memory of sarsaparilla or just a swell swig of one of the several Jones Soda flavors not found at your local 7-Eleven, it's time to meet Pop: The Soda Shop. This tiny Scottsdale store carries a variety of exotic, alternative, gourmet and all-around-delicious carbonated beverages. Hell, they'll even order special sodas for you. It doesn't matter if you call it soda, pop or cola -- Pop: The Soda Shop stocks it, along with friendly service and usually a soda fanatic or two who wants to chat about the price of Nehi in Nebraska. Get popping.
Technically, at least, Italian gelato is better for you than regular ol' American ice cream. Like they used to say of Miller Lite back in the day (and may still do, as far as we know), it tastes great and is less filling. Indeed, gelato uses less milk fat during its production (the FDA mandates at least 10 percent milk fat for ice cream), and it doesn't pump as much air into the frozen treat, leaving gelato with a far smoother consistency. Of course, you're not supposed to eat gelato by the bucketful, either, which is what we do whenever we're in Chandler, stopping by the best gelato shop in the Valley, for as much of its pistachio flavor as we can eat. The quality of Angel Sweet's product is very high, due in no small part to the fact that the investors behind this gelato reputedly own the U.S. license for Mondogelato, a famous gelato maker whose product they fell in love with during a fact-finding mission to Italy. Of Angel Sweet's 20-some flavors, we adore the coconut, the peanut butter, the hazelnut, the zuppa inglese (which tastes like eggnog), and the berry explosion of frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest), tangy from the seeds of a half-dozen berries. Talk about la dolce vita, this is it! But, alas, we haven't noticed any dramatic weight loss since we've begun stopping by for our weekly gorges. Can't figure out why.
The vintage storefront and prices are certainly evidence that not much has changed since 1982, when Pizza Mart began serving up cheap eats and a certain cold, sugary treat for people in search of an inexpensive meal. Opened in 1972 as a Village Inn Pizza joint, the oddly triangular-shaped red brick, wood, and corrugated sheet metal structure has been turned into a haven for fans of tasty, cheap ice cream. For exactly one quarter (no tax!), one can choose from one flavor (vanilla) and cone style (the light and fluffy cake cone) vended from a large soft-serve machine. The portions are definitely gracious, and the restaurant also offers an all-day $4.95 large pepperoni pizza special. Twenty-five cents will get you far at the Mart, where one can also play old-timey video arcade games including Ms. Pac Man and Excitebike, also for just a quarter a turn. Did somebody say "Awesome '80s"?
This place is so, so darling. Bright white walls, blond-wood everything, and a clean expanse of pale blue mosaic tile behind the namesake counter (which only seats a dozen) create a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who wants to enjoy a cup of dark roast coffee that's as tasty and cheap as they come. But be forewarned: One-half of the store showcases gourmet foods, including treats from Dean & Deluca and Vosges, ready-to-go sandwiches and salads (also available off the menu), and boutique-y booze like Chimay Ale, Sofia Mini, and Lindemans Framboise. The other half of The Counter peddles perfect little gifts to keep for yourself: jewelry, hip CDs and books, groovy Jonathan Adler ceramics and pillows, $50 tank tops, and Jack Spade tote bags. After lingering a while -- and getting as caffeinated as you please -- you're bound to spend more than a quarter.

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