Gardena’s new Marukai Supermarket is among the great food resources in Los Angeles, one of those places where every aisle reveals another vegetable you can’t wait to cook, a bottle of litchi soda you want to taste, a gadget you want to rip out of its plastic. (I tested the slicing ability of a ceramic-edged mandoline on a Fuji apple I’d bought before I even left the store.) The fish aisles, you would expect to be good — although the seafood in some Chinese and Latin American markets may be as fresh, Japanese markets have always carried impeccable stuff — but you could probably stock a first-rate sushi bar solely from what you find in the refrigerator cases: fish as vivid, as finely detailed, as a cover photograph from Gourmet.
Need fresh fish-heads? Skeletons? Scraps for stock? Several different species are on offer. There are the fillets, marinated in miso or sake lees and ready to be pan-broiled to an exquisite crispness, that helped make Matsuhisa’s reputation. There are dozens of brands of Japanese canned coffees and teas, hundreds of kinds of Japanese candy, maybe a thousand different Japanese pickles. The selection of sake and Japanese soju is close to encyclopedic. And I have never seen more varieties of Spam in my life.
The meat department alone may be reason to drive to Gardena. You will find not just USDA prime beef from Harris Ranch, the same beef featured at my favorite Los Angeles butcher, but also an entire display case dedicated to the famous Kobe-style wagyu beef, marbled like the endpapers of a Florentine-bound journal, cut into small steaks, incised into wafers for shabu-shabu, ground into oddly lean hamburger meat or chunked up for stews. Kurobuta pork, from Berkshire-breed black pigs, is sold as chops, cut thinly for skewering or sliced into cutlets for tonkatsu, ready to be rolled in flour, egg and Japanese bread crumbs (panko), then quickly deep-fried. (At Marukai, animal is generally packaged in Japanese-size portions, so even this extremely expensive meat seems reasonably enough priced — you don’t find a lot of giant crown roasts here.) The kurobuta bacon, sold in wee, 3.8-ounce packages, is probably the most highly processed meat product I have ever allowed into my kitchen (the list of chemicals on the label is as long as The Tale of Genji), but the mild, nutty flavor is extraordinary, almost as complex as Parmesan cheese.
I liked the Meiji supermarket that used to occupy this building, but this Marukai is like a museum of the possibilities of Japanese food. And the store would be worth visiting for its food court alone, a skillfully assembled album of local Asian and Asian-American cooking to be taken home or eaten at one of the scant few tables scattered around the area.
There is a stand selling dim sum and related food from Sea Empress, probably the biggest Hong Kong–style restaurant in the South Bay (and located just a few yards away in the same shopping center), plus a perpetually crowded outlet of Beard Papa, where crispy, chewy cream puffs are baked and filled on a small assembly line. An outpost of the mediocre Sushi Boy empire is here, slinging California rolls and hacked-up nigiri assortments to the masses. Shin-Sen-Gumi is here too, carefully grilling skewers of its signature soft chicken meatballs over charcoal, as well as skewered parts ranging from chicken hearts to chicken skin; frying whole chicken legs into objects as crunchy and full-flavored as good Indonesian fried chicken; and steaming eel tucked into a sort of bland Japanese tamale, unagi chimaki.
Next to the long pickle counter is a pocket branch of Carson’s well-regarded Hawaiian restaurant Back Home in Lahaina: not just Local Grindz, but local Local Grindz; all the Spam sandwiches and beef-teriyaki-plate lunches and bowls of saimin noodles and grisly containers of loco moco you could ever hope to find, but also teri-burgers and kalbi salads and a selection of protein wrapped in moss-green tortillas. I am especially fond of the wrap that includes half a pound of smoky, pit-roasted kalua pork and a massive slug of shredded cabbage, the sort of Pacific Island burrito you could imagine a Samoan family taking to a picnic.
Koromaru specializes in deep-fried foods — squid legs, pork cutlets, octopus, and something called the croquette dog, a vaguely sausage-shaped vegetable patty fried crisp and stuffed into a hot-dog bun, all heralded by a display of plastic deep-fried food, all served with cute little plastic bottles of thick, house-made tonkatsu sauce. The deep-fried asparagus is kind of wonderful, really, dipped in egg and bread crumbs and transformed into a kind of vegetarian Hot Dog on a Stick. But the highlight is probably the menchi cutlet sandwich, a deep-fried hamburger patty served on white bread with tonkatsu sauce and cabbage, which is a blend of weirdness and hominess you just don’t find everywhere. Just like, come to think of it, Marukai Supermarket itself.
Marukai Supermarket, 1620 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 464-8888. Food court is cash only.
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