Off-the-beaten-path global markets
Photography by Chloe Berk
The stars are aligning over Philadelphia as a major food city, but beyond trendy noodle bars and celebrity chefs there is a culinary catacomb of international grocery stores that rarely receive mention. Chinatown and the Italian Market are obvious strongholds for Asian, Italian and Mexican options, but have you ever surfed the Russian pickle bars of Bustleton Avenue? Do you know about the mosque in Olde Kensington that sells four different kinds of juicy dates from behind an unmarked door? Have you ever driven to Fox Chase for wursts and tortes?
Here, you’ll find a list of my favorite haunts. This is not a comprehensive overview of the area’s myriad groceries, nor is it a “best of” list, but if you’re a day-tripper who enjoys exploring Philadelphia’s nether regions, you’ll find bountiful bargains and fixin’s for fabulous dinner parties, whether you want to prepare Middle Eastern meze for guests seated on floor pillows or host a Russian smorgasbord complete with four kinds of caviar.
Pickle Bars, Smoked Fish and the Greater Northeast
Bustleton Avenue is no one’s idea of a pleasant drive, but two rambling Russian grocery stores—NetCost Market and Bell’s Market—make the stop-and-start journey down the boulevard a worthwhile feat. The stores rival each other in abundance; of the two, NetCost has a greater selection of produce, but the pickle bar that welcomes you as you enter Bell’s makes it a personal favorite. Both stores offer sumptuous delis, bakeries and smoked fish stalls where you can sample before you buy. During a recent run to NetCost, I stocked up on cold-smoked sprats (those small fish also known as brisling), goat butter, raw milk, fennel tea and currant strudel. If you are a baker, behold the aisle of baking flour (hard-to find rye flour is amply stocked); if you are a canner or pickler, note that NetCost carries four kinds of cucumbers, plus bundled fresh herbs as thick as rose bouquets.
For the complete adventure, stop at Uzbekistan (12012 Bustleton Ave.)—a block from NetCost—and order a lunch of cold salads and kebab. You’ll find yourself seated at a white tablecloth, serenaded by Russian music videos, and drinking the house fruit punch loaded with whole cherries. BYO vodka is encouraged. For the advanced Russian culinary experience, stop at the Russian bath house Southampton Spa (141 2nd St. Pike) before you shop. You can steam and sauna out your toxins, then order a plate of smoked fish by the pool. You think I’m joking, but I’m not.
The Spice Stores of West Philadelphia
If you’re in search of cardamom and bangles, 42nd Street is the place to find not one but two homey Indian groceries. Dana Mandi, aka Rice N Spice (it has two signs and two separate Yelp listings, but it’s the same store), is a cluttered spice treasure trove with a curry shop in the back. If you’ve got the afternoon before you, stop in for a mango lassi and catch part of a Bollywood flick while you wait for your plate of palak paneer. Then, peruse the aisles for incense and spicy snacks, or pick up a year’s supply of rice from the stacks of basmati and jasmine piled high by the front door. Produce is limited (and wilty), but there’s a little bit of everything here and the air is fragrant with cumin.
One block away, International Foods & Spices offers orderly aisles of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi goods. Aisle 4 brims with mustard seeds and turmeric root, while the freezers along the perimeter fairly burst with frozen samosas, a multitude of naan and unexpected treats like durian fruit pops. If you’re sick of Swanson’s frozen dinners, you can give your workaday lunches a serious makeover here with frozen vindaloo and butter chicken. There’s also a smattering of housewares, like spice boxes that are great for storing your newly acquired trove of masala.
Kimchi and Cronuts in Elkins Park
Philadelphia’s Asian markets form a constellation across the city, from the much-loved Hung Vuong Supermarket at 11th and Washington to the seafood-centric Spring Garden Market on the fringe of Northern Liberties. For a kimchi-centric day trip, explore H Mart, an immersive Korean shopping experience with two locations (see below).
At the giant H Mart in Elkins Park, you can shop for your next Korean BBQ party while you drink bubble tea, get a haircut, try on Gucci sunglasses, buy bedding and order a steaming bowl of bibimbop—all in one fell swoop. This is a mini mall with a grocery on the first floor and a food court just an elevator ride above it.
Not to be missed: The in-store French pastry shop, Paris Baguette, at the Elkins Park H Mart makes this location a worthwhile drive. Go in the morning and sip a leisurely cup of coffee or tea over flaky fusion pastries, from green-pea and almond to the more traditional chocolate croissant. There are even “NYC Croissant Donuts” in two flavors—yes, you must try the Korean version of the Cronut.
Directly across from Paris Baguette is a terrific take-out stall that sells house-made kimchi, soups and marinated meats. Though you may be tempted, don’t skip out on the elbow-to-elbow grocery experience, where tanks of giant clams and an array of fresh mushrooms inspire awe.
From top: Owner Dalal Dabbour prepares rice at Al-Amana Grocery Store; German potato salad from
Reiker’s market; A “cronut” from H Mart; Butcher Alex Naunenko prepares sausage at Reiker’s market;
Fresh baked bread from Krakus market; Dried fish from Bell’s market.
Japanese Noodles in Narberth
If you’re on a miso-seeking mission, Maido, the Japanese grocery and lunch counter in Narberth, makes a trip on the Paoli-Thorndale line worthwhile. The shop is walking distance from the station, and if you plan your trip around lunchtime you can make a hot plate of yakisoba part of the excursion. The lunch counter attracts a quirky crowd, and the owner and her staff are very friendly as they dispense barley tea and prepare stir-fries. Maido sells a little bit of everything, from to-go boxes of sushi to sweet and savory snacks, along with dry noodles, sauces, and even rice cookers. If you’re planning a sushi-rolling night at your house, this is a good place to grab a bamboo roller and a packet of nori. If you have a thing for canned coffee beverages, Pocky sticks and Hello Kitty paraphernalia, you’ll find a bounty. Note: Maido will be moving to Ardmore sometime this summer, so please call ahead or check the website.
Dates, Hummus and Halal Meat in Olde Kensington
Tucked behind the Crane Arts Building on Germantown Avenue is a beautifully muraled Islamic center with a hidden food store that stocks sumptuous dates, especially around Ramadan. Here, in the Al-Amana Grocery Store, you’ll find a friendly staff that prepares halal meat platters (and sandwiches) behind the counter and stocks the shelves with an eclectic mix of spices, dried beans and grains, and Middle Eastern baked goods. This is a great place to load up on inexpensive canned hummus—just add lemon zest and chopped herbs to freshen it up. Pick up pita, pickles and feta, and you can begin to envision sourcing a whole meal here.
To find the store, enter through the playground and look for the double doors. You’ll feel like you are trespassing, but once you’re inside, you will be warmly welcomed. The array of dates, from plump Medjools to fresh ones still on their stems, makes this a stand-out stop. If the store is closed (times aren’t listed on the website), veer back to Girard Avenue and visit Jerusalem, 115 W. Girard Ave., for the same friendly service and similar items.
Pierogies and Poppy Seeds in Port Richmond
At the quaint Krakus Market, just about everyone is speaking Polish— you’ll hear it by the butcher counter, where there are ten kinds of house-made kielbasa (try the weselna, or wedding sausage), and you’ll hear it at checkout, when locals pop in to buy freshly made jelly donuts and pick up a copy of the Polish newspaper. For the full experience, order a Polish beer and a plate of pierogies at the eat-in café, then stock up on cold cuts, dark bread, poppy-seed cake, pickled herring, juices, fizzy water and chocolates. Pints of frozen hunter stew, sold out of the cooler, are excellent in winter, but this store is most festive around Easter when locals stop in for hams and babka.
Wursts and Strudel in Fox Chase
The impressive meat counter at Rieker’s Prime Meats, a second-generation German butcher shop, is worth the drive from Center City. Not only will you find leberwurst, blutwurst, knackwurst and weisswurst, you can peer behind the counter and watch the butcher at work stuffing sausages—a testament to the freshness of everything in the cold case. Pick up quarts of German potato salad and vinegary cucumber salad, along with German bread, rot kraut, spaetzle, and strudel—and you’ve got Oktoberfest any time of year. Look for bags of pretzels in the freezer— you can buy a bag, thaw and warm them, then serve them with beer on the patio. There’s also a good selection of chocolates and German magazines. Around the holidays, this shop is stuffed with candies and cookies, making it a festive spot to gather stocking stuffers.
Al-Amana Grocery Store
1501 Germantown Ave.
8330 Bustleton Ave.
Dana Mandi, aka Rice N Spice
4205 Chestnut St.
H Mart–Elkins Park
7320 Old York Rd.
H Mart–Upper Darby
7052 Terminal St.
International Foods & Spices
4203 Walnut St.
3150 Richmond St.
36 N. Narberth Ave., Narberth
11701 Bustleton Ave.
Rieker’s Prime Meats
7979 Oxford Ave.