99 Ranch Market, No. 4 Bamboo Plaza, 998 N. Hill St., Chinatown. (213) 625-3399. Open Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Friday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
To get to the 99 Ranch Market in Chinatown's Bamboo Plaza, you take glass elevators from the top parking area and glide six levels down past the luxurious Empress Pavilion restaurant onto a central courtyard.
The elegant plaza and market materialized not long ago on the ruins of the venerable Yee Sing Chong, a large, well-kept Chinese grocery store that was an L.A. institution. Many of us discovered our first jars of hoisin sauce there. And for years we sought the advice of its proprietor, who tirelessly unraveled the mysteries of mushroom soy sauce, fuzzy melon and other Chinese groceries.
It was a lucrative property, though, and when the bulldozers rolled in to claim it, no one was surprised. At first many mourned Yee Sing Chong's passing, but shoppers are now finding that the new 99 Ranch Market--one of eight 99 Ranch Markets in California--stocks all their favorite Chinese ingredients and much more.
99 Ranch looks almost like any standard supermarket until you see its vast seafood and meat department. Along one wall in sparkling, fastidiously clean tanks are live catfish and briskly swimming tilapia of various sizes. Humming pumps gush fresh water into the tanks that house lobsters, Dungeness, blue and rock crabs. Other containers hold live oysters and several kinds of clams. On banks of ice there are multihued fish in the round: soles, dabs, rockfish and the silvery, almost paper-thin, moon fish.
A team of butchers is on hand to custom-carve meats from the enormous selection of primal cuts on display. And in a cooler case at the end of the meat counters are packages of julienned or diced chicken and pork ready for stir frys.
Like many Asian markets these days, the 99 Ranch stores stock a basic selection of pan-Asian goods that run the gamut from Thai curry pastes to Japanese ice cream. But the product mix differs in each 99 Ranch location. The Bamboo Plaza branch, flagship of the chain, caters to a predominantly Chinese clientele. The huge Little Saigon market offers more items favored by Vietnamese cooks.
You'll see a lot of Western products in the stores too, although this wasn't always the case. Roger Chen, owner of the Tawa-99 Ranch company, once sold only Asian groceries. But even after he had acquired several markets of his own, Chen still found himself buying his kids their favorite cereal and frozen pizza at other supermarkets. He reasoned that most Asian families were doing the same thing and that his stores were losing part of their business. His larger markets in Rowland Heights, Montebello and Anaheim now carry up to 50% Western merchandise and have begun to attract shoppers from the entire community.
To appeal to these consumers and what he perceives as "the taste of the second generation," Chen saw a need to monitor the uneven quality of imported products. So Tawa-99 Ranch packs many basic Asian foods under its Kimbo and 99 brand labels. Chen says that the company cultivates suppliers who can deliver consistently uniform goods.
SHOPPING LIST: PRODUCE
* Winter melon: Imagine a large dusty green colored melon arriving at the table filled with a rich chicken and seafood soup. It is ladled out along with chunks of the melon's creamy white flesh. The dish, called winter melon pond, is the most famous use of this vegetable that, despite its name is actually a squash. Winter melon is labeled white gourd in this produce department and you'll usually find it cut into wedges. It's delicious when lightly sauteed with strips of ham--preferably the Chinese varieties discussed below--or used in simple soups. The vegetable keeps well for five days wrapped in foil or plastic.
* Fuzzy melon: A relative of winter melon, this pale green squash, also labeled moqua , comes in two shapes. One is oval and the other resembles an elongated bowling-pin. This light green squash has a short baby-fine fuzz over its surface. Fuzzy melons are lovely cut lengthwise and stuffed with the same kind of ground meat mixture found in Chinese dumplings (pork or chicken, white of scallion, minced tree ear mushrooms with a little soy sauce, garlic and rice wine). Chinese cooks like to "blanch" the julienned squash in hot oil, before adding it to seasonings or other ingredients. As you might expect, fuzzy melons should be peeled.