When people ask me if Buffalo has a Chinatown where they can go shopping for ingredients needed for various and sundry Asian cuisines, I have a ready answer.
Have you been to Asia Food Market, 2055 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst? In the Home Depot plaza, in the big building that was formerly a Walmart?
While there is no neighborhood where Chinese and other Asian businesses are concentrated, shoppers can find a surprising array of ingredients for sale, if they know where to look. Because of the volume of in-search-of queries, I’ll offer guides to the most remarkable international groceries the 716 has to offer.
This week: Meet Western New York’s Asian supermarket. Rocky Ren and Qing Li opened their third Asia Food Mart in Amherst in 2017, following locations in Rochester and Syracuse. A fourth, Ren’s Mart, opened in Ithaca in 2020.
Live fish and other seafood fishmongered to order, inexpensive vegetables hard to find elsewhere, and exhaustive rosters of ingredients for Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and more cuisines make for a unique shopping destination. Here’s some highlights from the store, which is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
The item that brings me here most often is Chinese mustard greens, bracingly zippy but hefty, with stems the diameter of my pinky. Introduced to them by the proprietor of Uncle John’s No. 1 ages ago, they stuck.
Blanched, chopped, given a ride in a hot pan with garlic, sesame oil and hoisin or oyster sauce, they are a favorite mono-vegetable meal. Here, a bundle enough for three meals is about $3.
Deals abound, though not everything’s cheaper, like the $7 pineapples. Inside the entrance, a whiteboard lists 10 sorts of greens by the case price, reflecting the store’s role as a restaurant depot for smaller Asian restaurants.
Soybean curd can be a divisive subject, and I’m not trying to sway anyone to the tofu trail. But if vegetable protein is part of your eating week, know that this is the tofu motherlode.
Most supermarkets have three types: silken, firm, extra-firm. Here, one may explore dozens. Pasta-like sheets, tougher skin, skin tied in knots, pressed marinated bricks, smoked, mock chicken, black bean and more. Use them in the right recipe, and expanding your vegan arsenal is easy as pie.
People looking for really, really, fresh seafood – as in alive when you met – come here. That’s why the store has a background fish tank scent – it’s got an aquarium in the back, where people shop. Customers choose a fish from the ice beds, or one swimming in a tank, and the fishmonger prepares it for them with a deft knife. Shrimp, crab, bullfrogs, cockles and geoduck were all for sale recently.
Remember fondue? The meal where an essential part of the deliciousness is choosing your morsels and cooking them to your specification, or dunking them in cheese or chocolate? Hotpot is rather like Asian fondue in that way. It’s a communal meal, with one or two types of broth simmering on a burner in the center of the table while participants choose from trays of ingredients and cook themselves bites. Choose from a dozen types of fish balls by the pound, sausages, seafood, sliced meats, noodles, broth mixes – it’s all here.
If you have ever goggled at the array of heat-and-eat meals at your supermarket, know the Asian equivalent is here in the frozen cases, from dumplings through entrees, to desserts. But the pinnacle of packaged excellence remains, to me, the ramen aisle.
Packaged instant noodles here come from single-serving to dinner-party size. The classic soups of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine are all represented here in add-hot-water-and-wait formats. Korean extra spicy buldak “fire chicken” ramen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of soup. But at 99 cents a throw, you just might find the soothing ramen homage to Vietnamese pho ga, chicken soup, food for your soul.
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