Last summer, a friend of mine piqued my curiosity with a trip down to one of our city's many Asian markets. I think what caught my attention was the big bin advertising live bullfrogs for sale in both English and Chinese. Now, as a self-respecting southerner of sorts, I've never had an aversion to eating frog, but the markets I get it at usually sell them, well, hacked off at the hind quarter, ostensibly ready to batter and fry, as a southerner is liable to do. I was intrigued. I had to go.
Trouble was, I'm an awful driver. Purely terrible, even with GPS holding my hand. I wound up at an Asian market, sure enough, but the wrong one. A small, forgotten little corner store tucked into a service road near one of those strange shaved ice shacks that somehow still manage to stay in business. Alas, no mysterious live bullfrogs. Not even any power in the shop, as the store owner was having a very heated one-way argument with an Alabama Power guy over what seemed to be a botched wiring job. I settled for some very affordable napa cabbage, a tall boy bottle of oyster sauce, and I went home defeated.
I moved on to other things, namely trying to find awesome carnicerias in whatever barrio I could uncover. Found myself a ready supply of the finer things in life, like beef tongue and tripe. For the moment, my attention was suitably diverted. I made tacos. Lots of tacos. Tacos for potluck events, tacos for friends, tacos for family. Sure, there were other things (the usual work week curries, to name one), but I think it's safe to say that a good chunk of 2010 was spent flipping corn tortillas.
Still, I'm loathe to stay on one trend for too long. The lure of the Asian market never left me. My wife got me into rolling our own sushi, and got me hooked on that for a good month. Seeing a good idea, she bought me a very nice sushi cookbook, and in a one-two punch, a Vietnamese cookbook. Being a sucker for regional-specific stuff like that, I tore through that book in a day. I was hooked. My wife and I made arrangements with my friend and his girlfriend for a little weekend excursion.
The Super Oriental Market was a strange sight when we first pulled up. It was in a building that, half a lifetime ago, used to be a Quincy's steakhouse. You know, the ones with the big yeast rolls, and the back quarter of the establishment set up as a sun room for whatever reason. The glass windows and doors leading in were nearly completely obfuscated with ads, fliers, and the sort of things you'd expect at any other corner store or bodega. Some bored-looking lady chain-smoked on a picnic bench outside while a couple of kids ran around and fussed. In the abandoned parking lot, a few green patches permitted a few scrawny exotic trees to grow, which looked a bit beaten-down by the nasty winter we'd so far endured.
Upon entering, it was dark, cluttered, and smelled of fish. When I say fish, I don't mean that off smell that you get from stuff that's been neglected for a day or two and is going south. I mean it smelled of nice, fresh fish. And sure enough, to our right there was a wall of delights from the sea. Live eels, live crabs, prawns, snails, conch (OMG), flounder, and lobsters. The lobsters (my wife's favorite) were both enormous and cheap. At $9 a pound, they completely undercut Publix's atrocious $15 / pound, and my wife picked one out that was nearly five pounds!
Adjacent to the lobster tank, I also spotted my holy grail:
Live bullfrogs! The staff was rather busy (and I couldn't quite justify buying any at that moment) so I saved any questions on preparation for another trip, but it was still awesome to see they had them. I'm sure I'll have them for another time. Besides, it was lunchtime, the gang was getting hungry, and the market just so happened to have an in-market restaurant, the Red Pearl. We decided to tuck in for a little strange.
This hot little number is "Crispy salted baby fish with peanuts". I wasn't sure what to expect (well, I was thinking maybe anchovies or something) but it sure wasn't this. Each one of the noodle-like things in that picture is some kind of fry, ie, literally a baby fish. You can't see it from the picture, but they're the whole fish, including the head, eyes, and all. The taste was a bit like a seafood version of a pork rind, and was mixed well with peanuts and very potent chili peppers. Tasty with rice, but a little on the dry side. Still, fun to dabble in.
My wife got a Szechwan style chitterling hot pot, which was a wonderful bit of comfort food. Hot pots have always reminded me of a slice of old school Americana, and the old fashioned sunday pot roast, just different. Very filling stuff.
After we ate, we decided to get back to shopping in earnest. Most of it was window shopping, since we could only afford to shop for a few things we'd be able to use immediately, and for things that would keep, that we could use for future cooking projects. I loaded up on the jarred and bottled necessities for further Asian cooking: fish sauce, japanese curry packets, oyster sauce, dried shrimp, bean sauce, noodles of all sorts, rice paper, and much more. We picked up a few things we were sure we could dispatch, like quail eggs (finally, I find somebody around here who sells them!), gio lua for making Vietnamese banh mi and a whole rabbit. We were tempted by this little guy, a la A Christmas Story, but decided to save the "smiling Chinese turkey" for another day.
We even dabbled in a few of the non-edible items. In the sun room section of the building, they had a dizzying assortment of serving dishes, utensils, and the like. I priced out their woks, which were too expensive for my liking, and gawked at some fantastic looking serving dishes that would probably have to wait for another day. I couldn't resist a $15 chinese cleaver that was very heavy, very sharp, and full tang. Total bargain on that one.
At the end of a good two hour shopping romp, we finally wrapped things up and checked out. In a random act of kindness, and I think as some consolation for a couple of wide-eyed idiots coming into the store and spending a hefty chunk of change, the lady at the register threw in a jar of chinese rice-coated peanuts (in "pizza flavor") for free. Totally unexpected and awesome.
Of all my discoveries of strange little markets in and around this city, I have to say this was the most fun trip to a market I've ever had. I'm well good and spent for this month, but I look forward to going there again next month, and hopefully many more times in the future.
Since I'm a little sleep deprived, I forgot to put the link to the market's website on here, so lemme correct that now: