Behold Famima!!, a chain of clean, well-lighted convenience stores in the nicer parts of town: chilled regiments of bottled Japanese teas and shiny flotillas of imported canned coffee, purified water from every part of the world, Pocky and Pretz, enough seaweed-flavored snacks to gladden the heart of every bar hostess in Yokohama. Refrigerated cases hold jewel-like displays of fresh seaweed salad and steamed edamame, salads with yuzu dressing and tofu puffs stuffed with rice. A rack of magazines sits at one side of the store, leavened with just enough Japanese fashion titles to elevate the selection, and nearby is an array of sleek stationery and gel pens. Right about where an AM-PM might keep the Slim Jims is an exquisitely displayed assortment of European shampoos, high-end cleansing products and discreetly packaged condoms.
In Japan, the stores, called something like Fam-lee Maht-o (Family Mart), number 6,000 and counting, a neighborhood presence something akin to tabacs in France, places where it is possible to pick up a pack of smokes, a beer, a bus ticket, a packet of stamps, a receipt for your utility bill and a phone card all in one place. Family Marts are known for their vast selection of instant soups and ramen noodles, which are generally sluiced with hot water right there in the shop and eaten outside leaning against the wall.
The half-dozen Famima!! shops in the Los Angeles area, the first American outposts of the Japanese convenience-store empire, are often compared to upscale ?7-Elevens, panethnic minimarts for a new multicultural age. But if you’ve stayed at the Belvedere or the Four Seasons lately, you may recognize Famima!! as an expanded version of a luxury hotel minibar, right down to the gourmet popcorn, the pricey bars of organic chocolate and the excellent Internet access. An assortment from Famima!! — the dual-carb exclamation points seem to be an integral part of the name in the United States — would be a splendid addition to any hotel suite in the world.
As someone accustomed to driving all over Los Angeles for favorite brands of bottled green tea, Japanese notepads, seaweed crackers, toy trucks and exotic flavors of Gummis, I love Famima!! Where else can I can find mochi ice cream, gelato and mango ice cream all in the same freezer case? Rice balls and spaghetti Bolognese? Italian-style panini and Filipino-style Chinese pork buns, California rolls and bread-crumb-dusted curry doughnuts as good as the ones you find in Koreatown bakeries? I’m not sure that I have felt so much a part of a precisely targeted demographic since I ran across Snoop Dogg’s hip-hop-oldies station on satellite radio last year. Famima!! is shiny L.A. multiculturalism rendered in stainless steel, halogen and fake crab.
Where the concept seems to unravel, of course, is with most of the food itself, or at least in the food that inhabits the deli cases instead of the snack aisles, which is strictly hit-and-miss — yes to the rice balls flavored with pickled plum, no to the slimy Vietnamese vegetable rolls, a qualified maybe to the cold udon, which are more like cold, overcooked linguine but are tasty enough with their sauce of scallions and soy. Italian pastas are pretty bad. The sushi rolls actually taste a bit like sushi rolls, if you can get past the surimi, the damp toasted seaweed and the wasabi that you have to squeeze out of little ketchup packets — not Urasawa, but not horrible. Ingredients and nutritional analyses are printed clearly on the wrappers, so that the allergic can avoid peanuts and the cautious can learn that there are more fat grams in a hummus wrap than they ever thought possible.
As with the roadhouse chain Autogrill in Italy, you can choose panini from a refrigerated case at Famima!! and have them toasted to order in a sandwich press. But where the Autogrill assembles its sandwiches of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma on honest Italian loaves, Famima!! slings its cold-cut combos or basil-dressed chicken onto oily lengths of focaccia whose ingredient list stretches longer than a biblical scroll. The panini at Famima!! are satisfyingly crisp and oozy, but there is something oddly sub–Pizza Hut–ish about the experience, like those puffy quick-bake pizzas that sometimes show up toward the end of long American Airlines flights.
Famima!!, 1465 Westwood Blvd., Wstwd., (310) 231-3432. Open daily 7 a.m.–11 p.m. Also at 6759 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; 25 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; 1348 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; 22529 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; and 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd., among other locations.