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THE RIGHT STUFF : From Imported Cheeses to Halal Meats, There's a Market for Everything Here

March 03, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

The ever-changing demographic of Orange County has brought with it an explosion of ethnic awareness. One way to get acquainted with other cultures is through the kitchen. After experiencing an exotic dish at a restaurant, there is often the urge to reproduce it at home, something best accomplished after a visit to one of our many ethnic specialty markets.

This is only a smattering of what is out there, but it is a good cross-section. A more in-depth look at ethnic markets crops up periodically in the Thursday Food section, whenever Linda Burum's pieces are featured. Burum, author of "A Guide To Ethnic Foods in Los Angeles" (Harper Perennial, $11), knows more about markets than anyone I've met.

In terms of pure exotica, nothing beats an Asian entry like the Bolsa Supermarket in Westminster's Little Saigon, which caters to both the Chinese and Vietnamese community. On a street lined with huge food emporia like Little Saigon Supermarket, Viet Hoa and others, this is my favorite. Nowhere else is it more apparent how the foods of those regions differ from our own products.

First off, there is a greater emphasis on freshness. You'll find few processed foods in here, save the pickled and sweetened items used to enhance the Asian table. Second, there is a mind-numbing array of foods that we simply do not use in Western cooking. One way to familiarize yourself with these foods is to grab a copy of "Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients" (William Morrow, $22.95). Another way is to mill around in here, keeping your eyes, ears, and especially your nose, open.

Begin a journey to this market in the huge produce section, where dozens of fruits and vegetables unseen in most Western markets sit on display alongside the more familiar ones. There are piles of fresh water chestnuts, green tamarind, bushels of pea shoots, bins of thick-skinned pomelos (similar to a grapefruit, only sweeter), betel leaves and dozens of fragrant herbs.

From there, walk back to the enormous fish department, perhaps the biggest in the county, where live shellfish tanks stocked with Manila clams, baby lobster, crab and much more are flanked by whole tilapia, carp, stripers and an endless array of shrimps, laid out, eyes open, in row after row.

Several aisles are devoted to fish sauces and salted condiments that the south Asian table cannot do without: nuoc mam, chili sauces, oyster sauce, flavored soys--a staggering inventory. There are noodles, noodles and more noodles, fashioned out of rice flour, wheat, even beans, most of them made by local factories.

In the front of the store are the rices, sold mostly in bulk packages of either 25 or 50 pounds (expect to pay about $10 for 25 pounds, depending on the brand and quality).

Finally, there is a huge housewares section where cooking equipment, plates, rice bowls and chop sticks are sold. In short, everything you'll need to cook a first-class Asian dinner.

Bolsa Supermarket, 9550 Bolsa Ave., Westminster. (714) 839-8002. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

*

Pascal and Mimi Olhats of Pascal restaurant took a calculated risk opening Pascal Epicerie and Wine, a small French market housed in a free-standing building adjacent to the couple's restaurant. An epicerie is, in Pascal's own words, "a grocery store for spices, cheeses, canned foods." What the Olhatses have opened is really more of an epicerie fine , adding house-made charcuterie, pastry, fine wines. Suffice to say that there is nothing else like it in Orange County.

This is a rustic, decidedly upscale place, done in the earthy colors of a Mediterranean village, complete with slate floor, a wine cellar and tasting tables. Don't bother looking for the products sold here in Vons or Lucky. Many of these foods are prepared on the premises in a large rear kitchen: cooking aids such as basic stocks; pates like a smooth duck terrine, creamy chicken liver mousse or peasanty beef daube; packaged dinners; homemade croissants and pastries; great sandwiches like grilled lamb with feta.

Pascal says it is his restaurant customers who convinced him to open this type of shop, but he confided that he has already pulled in lots of business from the local French community. There are jams, vinegars and teas from the famous Fauchon in Paris, breads are trucked in daily from La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Cheeses, which often vary greatly in terms of ripeness, are decidedly French--classics such as Epoisse, Reblochon and St. Marcellin (tiny rounds of goat cheese suspended in herbed olive oil) and the more familiar Brie and Camembert.

One of the features that Pascal is most proud of is his ever-changing array of takeout cooked dinners, sold at $7.95. This is a chance to taste signature dishes from the restaurant--sea bass with thyme crust, a rich seafood stew and others--in your own home.

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