FOOD: Guess Who Sells the Best Variety of Produce in Town

As great as the City’s restaurants are, the reality is that most people prepare the majority of their meals at home. (Or at least they put something that resembles food into their microwave.) But either way, grocery shopping is involved. The instinct may be to go to Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods for the bulk of your pantry staples and such, and maybe to the Farmers Market on occasion. And these are all fine options. But allow me to introduce an entirely different sort of animal that’s been hiding out at Seven Corners for four years: Grand Mart.

Grand Mart International Food is a local chain of Korean-owned supermarkets that started in 2002 and has spread throughout the Washington area and even as far as North Carolina and Georgia. It sells a vast range of meat, produce, dried goods, Asian sauces, and seafood.

The Falls Church outpost opened its doors in 2005 in the old Giant supermarket and hasn’t looked back, carving out a loyal following among many of the area’s ethnic groups, especially the Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern communities.

The biggest draw for everyone is the awesomely diverse produce section, which offers more variety than any other store in the City. A first-time shopper would be hard pressed to name even half of the various Asian greens and herbs that line the wall as you walk in. Aside from the usual suspects, you’ll also find baby mustard greens, Yu Choy (similar to Bok Choy), Korean Napa cabbage, Chinese celery, snow pea shoots, and young radishes.

And that’s just in the refrigerator case. The tubers are no less exciting. Prehistoric-looking taro root is piled up next to softball-sized Korean sweet potatoes and purple yams. There are also endless varieties of chili peppers, mushrooms, and squashes.

What’s just as impressive as the variety is the freshness. There is such a high volume of shoppers looking for their favorite veggies that the produce is constantly being replaced. Grocery manager Chul Choi estimates that they get about ten truckloads of produce per week.

“We get deliveries every day except Sunday,” Choi said.

The only problem, for a newbie at least, is deciding what to get.

A good starting place is simply to stop and look around. What are the other people buying? The Chinese grandmother with three bags full of snow pea shoots is a sure sign that they are fresh and worth buying. If everyone’s got a bag of Japanese eggplants in their shopping cart then you should probably throw some in yours as well. And if you’re uncomfortable spying on your fellow shoppers, just buy small amounts of several different items that seem to look the crispest and freshest (or check out my recommendations at the bottom of the page).

Aside from the veggies and the equally exotic fruit, which included Fuyu persimmons, young coconuts, and fresh tamarind pods on a recent trip, the rest of the store has its charms as well.

The refrigerator case at the back wall has packs of pork neck, quail, Korean-style beef short ribs, pigs feet, and pork belly, all of which are prominently featured on area Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai restaurants and are perfectly suitable for use in the home kitchen. There are also tons of cheap deals on all sorts of boney parts of various animals, which make great soup stocks.

Next to the meat section is the fish corner, which is admittedly a little scary. The last time I was there “live” blue crabs were a little sluggish (they were all dead) and the whole catfish staring back at me didn’t look all that appetizing.

But there is tremendous variety and selection and the prices are reasonable, so if something looks fresh I say go for it.

But my favorite section of the store outside of the produce is definitely the Asian condiments aisle, which houses rows and rows of soy sauces, oyster sauces, and various marinades of unknown origin. Part of the fun is the novelty of reading the labels (what is Luscious Soy Paste?), but there are also some great treats to be had.

The Super Special Kimlan Soy Sauce is regarded as some of the finest in the world, and you can get a big bottle for just five bucks. The cooking rice wines on the shelves are mostly top notch as well.

If you can’t decide which brand to buy a good rule of thumb, after reading the lists of ingredients for additives and preservatives, is to check the price. Usually the top grade stuff is a dollar or two more expensive than the lower quality imitators.

As much as I love it, Grand Mart does have its flaws. For some reason the air conditioning is always set to “arctic” (I have literally shivered as I’ve browsed the produce aisle). Sometimes there is also a strange smell that permeates the entire store, perhaps originating from the seafood area. And the lines at checkout can get ridiculously long. All in all, though, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So if your shopping list hasn’t changed in 30 years and you’re bored with the same bland steamed broccoli and boiled potatoes, you owe it to yourself to stop by Grand Mart, where a shopping adventure you won’t soon forget awaits.

For those who’d like a little guidance, here is some of my favorite produce at Grand Mart:

Korean Napa Cabbage slenderer than regular Napa, this is mild and crunchy and great in slaws and salads.

Chinese Broccoli — Blanch it and stir fry with garlic and ginger, or cook with sausage and toss with pasta.

Thai Basil — Anise-scented and addictive, it’s an awesome addition to Thai and Vietnamese stir-fries and soups.

Chayote Squash and Jicama — Perfect crunchy/sweet additions to salads.

Japanese Eggplant — Not as bitter as its larger cousin and extremely versatile.

Lotus Root — Strange looking vegetable that is nutty and sweet when simply stir fried with aromatics and a little soy sauce.

Fresh Water Chestnuts — Sweeter and crunchier than the canned variety, a great textural addition to fried rice.

Kabocha Squash — Tastes like a cross between pumpkin and butternut squash. Very good as a dessert; simmer with sugar and coconut milk.

Nashi Pears — Crunchy, sweet, mild, and best eaten without the tough skin in my opinion.

Ripe Plantains — I buy the ones that are totally black (NOT the starchy green and yellow ones, which have other uses) and either pan fry them or boil them. They taste like cooked bananas gone wild!

I would also recommend buying limes, lemons, cilantro, parsley, peppers, carrots, celery and just about any other “common” vegetable at Grand Mart. They are super cheap and usually very fresh.

June 12, 2009 


4 Responses to “FOOD: Guess Who Sells the Best Variety of Produce in Town”

  1. kathleen on June 12th, 2009 8:40 am

    I love the Grand Mart. It’s an excellent and very convenient market for fruits and vegetables.

  2. Andy Rankin on June 12th, 2009 9:42 am

    I think, but I’m not positive, that Grand Mart is actually in Fairfax County. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shop there.

    EDITOR’S RESPONSE: Andy, you’re right — but now that Jimmy Scarano has signed on as the Falls Church Times food writer, with weekly reviews, we’ve given him the OK to tiptoe across the City line when he finds a great reason to do so. And Grand Mart is right on the City line — see the map link below.

  3. TFC on June 12th, 2009 1:57 pm

    Don’t forget the whole beef tenderloins for a fabulous price!!!!

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