Cafe Reviews

Bringing Up Baba Ghanouj

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.