Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


Local Food Topics


The first version of the article below appeared in the Mountain View Voice in October 2002, but changes in the market landscape led to this update, written for Slow Food South Bay.

South Bay Specialty Markets

by Robert Rich, October 2005


The South Bay Area is blessed with an immensely diverse population, and for this reason we have an excellent choice of small ethnic and specialty markets. Most of these family-owned shops cater to small subsets of our local community. These markets often sell high quality ingredients that you won't find at big chain groceries.

At these little markets, you'll find handmade freshness, imported rarities, traditional flavors, and often a friendly smile of recognition when you return.

I’m based in Mountain View, so I have the most familiarity with markets in my immediate area. As I learn about others, I plan to add to this short overview.


European Specialties

Some of Mountain View’s local gems for European food sit near the corner of California and San Antonio at the Palo Alto border. Dittmer's Wursthaus (400 San Antonio Rd.) makes their own fresh sausages and smoked meats.

Dittmer Bubert opened his butcher shop in 1978. He still runs the shop along with his son and daughter and a core of loyal employees. Here you can find venison, ostrich, goose and duck; you can succumb to the guilty pleasure of handmade andouille, paprika or merguez lamb sausages; or you can order a sandwich made with fresh smoked turkey, house-cured pastrami, tender roast beef and more.

The heady fragrances from Dittmer's smoker linger in the air. A wall of imported European foods includes dark chocolates, heavy black bread, cornichon pickles, juices and herbal tea.

A little known secret about Dittmer’s: Local hunters can bring in their fresh kill to have it custom butchered for a fee. The service isn’t generally cheap, but the quality and safety surpasses what most people can do at home. Dittmer’s can also create custom sausages for clients with a 25 pound minimum order. 

Around the corner on California Avenue, The Milk Pail offers some of the best fresh produce in town. Unlike the local farmer’s markets, the produce here isn’t necessarily organic, however the quality is generally superb.

Milk Pail’s back room houses banks of refrigerators filled with fresh cheese, including artisanal cheeses from France, Spain, Italy, Corsica, Germany and locally made raw milk cheeses.

Waiting in line you'll hear Russian, Greek, French, Italian, and many other languages spoken. Locals from around the world have discovered that the Milk Pail is as good as any European country market.

Around the corner from Milk Pail and across the street from Dittmers, a new arrival called Wholesale Produce (391 San Antonio Rd.) sells a wide variety of hard to find fresh fruit and veggies, serving the restaurant community before 10 AM, and the general public during the day. With their excellent selection of fresh produce from a variety of cultures, this is a welcome addition to a neighborhood densely packed with good small markets.

Further up the road at 720 San Antonio Road, near Middlefield, Crossroads World Market also sells Mediterranean and European specialties at reasonable prices, with some rarities that fill gaps in our culinary landscape.

Here you can find fresh Halwa (sweet sesame cakes) from Israel, 12 kinds of fresh feta cheese, Czech beers, German Reislings and dark breads, hot mustard and roasted peppers, fresh olives, dried figs and dates, cakes and chocolates. Cheeses, yogurt, kefir and cured meats fill the coolers. In the freezer I discovered Turkish soujouk sausages, basturma (spicy cured beef) and - to my amazement - whole sides of salt cod.


Moving East

The local Persian and Arabic communities have found a haven in Rose Market on 1060 Castro St., near Miramonte. You can hear the loudspeaker relaying orders to the backroom grill, "two Koubideh, one barg, tomato, onion," as people line up for kabobs, eating their casual lunches under streetside umbrellas.

Rose Market specializes in imported and locally made Mediterranean foods, including halal meats (prepared in accordance to Muslim rules), fresh olives and feta cheese, flatbreads, spices, nuts, halva, creamy natural yogurts and jars of pickled tapenades.

Rose's deli counter keeps steam trays with fresh rice pallau, tadik (the crusty caramelized rice from the bottom of the pot), aash (a savory bean and noodle soup), sabzi, badenjan and other treats.


Looking South

We have a number of thriving Hispanic carnecerias, panacerias, and other small purveyors of Mexican staples. Mi Pueblo (40 S. Rengstorff Ave.) has an excellent meat counter and fresh produce. La Costeña grocery (2078 Old Middlefield Rd.) also fronts one of the most popular burrito shops in town, although I personally prefer the burritos made next door at La Bamba. Mercado Marlen (2516 California St.) connects to a bakery where locals buy fresh pan dulces.

I’m especially fond of a recent addition in walking distance from my own house, El Supermarcado on Moffett Blvd. Behind Baba Neo Malaysian restaurant. They have an excellent fresh meat counter, two kinds of ceviche (a marinated cold seafood salad) and some favorite items that I have trouble finding elsewhere. Some of these favorites include the uncolored “mayan recipe” version of fiery hot Yucateco hot sauce. It’s much easier to find the bright green version of this excellent habanero based bottled sauce.

At these shops you can find rare ingredients like epazote (a minty herb used in soups and mole that smells a bit like shoe polish), nopales (cactus leaves), huitlacoche (a delectable fungus that grows on corn) and plantains. Of course, you'll find countless varieties of fresh, dried and preserved chiles.

As you drive down California, look for the tiny California Market near Shoreline (1595 California St.) with a sign advertising fresh Tamales. They sell their handmade tamales hot from a steamer next to the register, filled with cheese, elote (fresh corn), chicken, or beef & pork. Real fresh tamales take a long time to make, and these are delicate, moist and light in texture.


Asian Specialties

In downtown Mountain View, Chinese herb shops like E&W (762 Dana St.) and Dana Oriental Market (800 California St. #120) offer excellent selections of tea and herbs. If you're a tea drinker, you owe it to yourself to visit one of these duskily scented shops, where you'll find high quality teas at very reasonable prices.

Behind the counter, natural medicines, roots and fungi wait to be weighed by the skilled staff. A relative newcomer, the 101 Tea Plantation (which recently moved to Castro street, around the corner from its old location on Villa) offers very fine teas and open bins of preserved and salted fruits. Their prices run a bit steep, but I come here nevertheless to buy the most intense preserved ginger I have ever found.

I'm in love with the mini moon cakes at Hong Kong Bakery (210 Castro St.) which daily makes their own Chinese pastries and fresh dim sum. Moon cakes traditionally mark the Autumn Moon Festival (on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month) but luckily this hole-in-the-wall local bakery makes such treats all year, filled with crumbly sweet lotus seed, nuts, or honeyed bean paste.

Asian snacks and mouth watering salty plums take their place alongside convenience items at Easy Foods (299 Castro), which stays open late for us night-owls. Mountain View’s mid-sized downtown Chinese grocery, Mountain View Market (340 Castro), changed ownership around 2000 and has yet to match the outstanding freshness and quality of their predecessor's produce and live fish, but they still have a good meat counter and stock a wide variety of Asian ingredients.

The previous owners of Mountain View Market re-opened in Sunnyvale as The New Wing Yuan Market (1139 Lawrence Expressway), in a large brightly scrubbed former supermarket. They have a fresh selection of unusual Asian produce including fresh herbs like rau ram and cinnamon basil, and a fish counter with seasonal surprises. Another large Chinese supermarket called Golden Phoenix replaced Albertson’s at 580 N Rengstorff Ave (corner of Middlefield) in Mountain View, with a similarly broad selection of imported goods.

The busiest of all the big Chinese markets in the area would have to be the Ranch 99 chain. These have huge selections of fresh and live fish along with supermarket-sized stocks of imported and domestic Asian specialties. Three locations include 10983 N. Wolfe Rd, Cupertino, 1688 Hostetter Rd, San Jose, and  338 Barber LN, Milpitas.

The Nijiya Market offers a wide range of Japanese foods in its spotless and roomy location next to Smart & Final, on El Camino Real near the Grant Road intersection. Nijiya has exceptional produce, often individually wrapped like small gifts.

You'll find esoteric seasonal ingredients such as fresh matsutaki mushrooms, a costly rarity collected in Oregon and much prized in Japan. A single pine-scented matsutaki can fetch $50 in Japan; here it costs a tenth of that.

You'll find ready-made sushi and bento boxes with barbecued meats and seaweed salad, prepared daily in the open kitchen; or if you're inclined to roll your own sushi, you'll find some of the cleanest, freshest fish in town, filleted and perfectly trimmed, packed neatly under cellophane like edible art.


Seeking Fresh Spices

I often find that Indian markets offer the best value for quality whole-seed bulk spices, much fresher than the little jars from the supermarket. For my favorite Indian market, I drive south to the corner of Lawrence Expressway and El Camino, in Sunnyvale. Here lies Bharat Bazaar at 3680 El Camino Real.

Back in the ‘80’s I used to eat Indian food at the casual Sanraj Café next door to Bharat Bazaar. Since then, the grocery store has expanded to take over most of the far end of the old strip mall, and Sanraj morphed into a sweet shop connected to the grocery store.

A few blocks further down El Camino in Santa Clara you can find a cluster of busy Korean and Vietnamese markets. I have only briefly checked into these, and I was pleased to find a wide variety of kim chi, cured fish and other spicy treats. Among them I know of four in the vicinity: Dong Khanh  at 3531 E. El Camino Real, Kyo-Po Market at 3379 El Camino, Oriental Grocery at 3443 El Camino, and National Foods at 3531 El Camino.

I have only scratched the surface with this list of discoveries. For example, further south in Campbell hides the British Food Center at 1800 W. Campbell Ave., a small market with imported comestibles from the U.K.  Also in Campbell, I recently noticed the African Food Market at 1645 S Bascom Ave # D, which I plan to explore soon in search of Grains of Paradise among other exotic delicacies.

With such a wealth of quality ethnic markets, an adventurous cook can find a lifetime full of new ingredients. These specialty markets thrive on the immense cultural diversity of our area, usually centered within pockets of subcultures that comprise the fabric of our community. I encourage people throughout our cultural milieu to take advantage of the quality and diversity of these culinary resources. This diversity is a form of wealth that we can't measure in dollars, but we can feel in the texture of daily life.