By Ian MacLellan
Super 88 – Asian Superstore
1 Brighton Ave., Allston
If a stranger to my homeland ever asked me for directions to an oasis with 3,796 different kinds of ramen and 811 varieties of oyster sauce, I would direct them to Super 88. Shopping there makes for a fascinating family getaway or weekend shopping with friends, and you can find all of the ingredients for anything on the menu at a Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, or Polynesian restaurant.
Before you start searching for General Tsao’s sauce, you’ll probably notice that Super 88 doesn’t smell like the neighborhood Food Master. Part of the smell could be due to the large collection of fresh and swimming fish, but it’s generally clear that this isn’t the cleanest supermarket. There are reports of customers dealing with rat problems on Yelp, but I don’t know anyone who has experienced this. If you are worried about sanitation issues, stay in the frozen food and sauces aisles, where everything is extremely well protected.
Everything at Super 88 is very well priced, especially on bulk items like frozen gyoza or wonton wrappers. Produce is cheap, too, and there are some good vegetables for stir-fry, but the stock isn’t as fresh as at most other grocery stores. There is a good selection of tasty sweets, with some safe standards like Pocky. I was most pleasantly surprised by their restaurant style tofu, which you can buy pre-marinated.
The Verdict: This is your cheapest option if you want to make that impressive noodle dish you’ve been craving since studying abroad in Vietnam, but it takes serious exploration in dim lighting to find all of the ingredients.
Bazaar on Cambridge St
424 Cambridge St., Allston
Entering Bazaar on Cambridge St. can instantly transport you out of Boston and into a bustling market in St. Petersburg. Babushkas ask you for help reaching boxes of tea, the staff tries their best to help translate, and Russian music plays on radios in every corner. With the Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic writing swirling around you, it’s easy to forget how close you are to Tufts.
Surprisingly, this is not just an amusing weekend stop, but a real grocery store that’s well-stocked with smoked fish, high-quality produce, deli meats, pre-made foods, cheese, caviar, Turkish delight, pickles, Kielbalsa, halva, vodka, and even pig parts (available in a plastic container shaped like a pig). The best offering for college students is the amusingly large selection of Russian and Eastern European vodkas, which are available both at room temperature and chilled for consumption on the walk home, I assume. I also recommend buying some of their massive desserts, like the drunken cherry cake; all are sold by the kilo.
I had the hardest time imagining full homemade meals while walking around Bazaar, probably because I have the hardest time imagining tasty vegetarian dishes from the region. I decided to buy authentic foods and make my own spinoffs. I bought a loaf of Armenian Bread and made a very non-authentic pizza with avocado slices on top. In the end, my only regret is not having bought more candy there.
The Verdict: Bazaar on Cambridge St. has the highest quality produce and is stocked to the brim with tasty treats, easy meals, and diverse languages.
La Internacional Market
318 Somerville Avenue
If you’ve never been to Union Square before, now is your chance, because La Internacional Market is the perfect gateway store.
It’s a welcoming location where you can easily imagine menus and dishes just by checking out different spices located all over the store. This is not a simple “Mexican” grocery store though; many of the offerings are El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Haitian, and Brazilian.
La Internacional Market has the most talkative and persuasive staff of these three stores by far, and I may have been tricked into buying the ridiculously hot Matouk’s West Indian Flambeau Sauce for this very reason. I do recommend trying this sauce… but trying it lightly.
The chiles and spices are cheap and come in small sizes, which is great for experimenting with new flavors. The selection of fresh produce is limited, but the fruits and vegetables that are available, such as tomatoes, avocadoes, and cassava, are all useful in Latin American dishes. There is a broad selection of craft, major brand, and some fun Latin American beers, though they’re not the store’s main attraction.
I suggest you buy some masa de maize, refried beans, and cheese, and make homemade Salvadoran papusas, which are like stuffed tortillas. They’re traditionally prepared over a wood fire, but you can pull it off in any frying pan.
The Verdict: Not the biggest or best stocked, but it’s worthwhile because of the convenient and hip location, cheap spices, and friendly staff.