Counter Culture: World’s at your fingertips at Koreana Plaza Market

03/12/2014 5:00 PM

03/12/2014 12:43 PM

For weeks we’d been hearing “Wow!” stories about Koreana Plaza Market in Rancho Cordova and its international food court, and wondered if the tales were exaggerated. We decided to go on a culinary safari and see for ourselves. You should, too.

In preparation for the visit, I reread The Bee’s Dec. 25 story on the market and its founder, Byong Joo Yu, written by my colleague, Steve Magagnini. His piece included some numbers: 3,000 customers a day, 80,000 square feet, 50,000 food items from 100 countries. Yu calls his empire “the United Nations of Food,” and with good reason.

Yu recognized the diversity of Rancho Cordova’s ethnic demographic and tailored the market to meet the community’s (and the region’s) rarefied grocery-shopping needs and tastes. He stocked his shelves with goods marketed to Russian, Ukrainian, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Iranian and Filipino families, and themed his food court accordingly.

Which is fortunate for adventurous diners and shoppers outside of those cultures. After all, the fun part of hunting, gathering, cooking and eating is largely about exploration and discovery. With that in mind, live frogs are only $3.49 a pound at Koreana’s seafood counter.

Of course, Steve was the lunch pal and guide on this excursion, but I got there early for a random walkabout. Later, I looked up the exact meanings of “cornucopia” to make sure one would apply. The definition that was closest to describing Koreana: “Food and drink in endless supply.”

The space is so big that, if it were emptied of its contents, it could accommodate a three-ring circus, a Boeing aircraft factory or the Olympics.

Well, almost. Yu’s philosophy is reflected by a huge (nothing is small in this place) sign on one wall: “Set the table – the world has arrived.”

I wandered through the produce section, mistaking it for a massive farmers market. Bins of bitter melon, jackfruit, taro, white coconut and kabocha (winter squash) crowded up against papayas, bell peppers, broccoli, oranges, eggplant and more. Chestnuts, anyone?

Nearby were rows of packaged and in-the-bin seasonings, spices, peppers, chili pods, rice, lentils and much more. Rose petals and linden flower, whole allspice and coriander, cumin, caraway, sumac – on and on.

Pick any aisle at random and prepare for shocks of variety and abundance – ginger-coconut candy, 100 kinds of noodles, shrimp-flavored chips, hot chili powders, soy sauces, dried veggies, cooking oils, jumbo cans of beans and tomatoes, dozens of hot sauces, honey, coffee, tea.

Lined up at a counter called the Grill were grab-and-go packages of seasoned crab, whole boiled squid with hot paste, pan-fried mung beans, broiled mackerel, kimchee and marinated beef bulgogi, a Korean favorite. A few steps away, racks of freshly baked breads filled the air with yeasty fragrance.

A Neptune’s table waited in the fish market, just past the humming tortilla-making machine. Tanks filled with live sturgeon, halibut, catfish, carp, crabs and lobsters were aquariums for the curious. Next to them, gleaming whole fish and other seafood on ice sparked ideas for that night’s dinner. Hmm. Golden sea bass, pompano, black cod or snapper? White shrimp, clams, oysters, squid or octopus? How about salmon belly? I was full just looking.

Lunch pal Steve called out from the food court. We cruised the displays of bargain-priced fare, most of it in steam trays that are replenished often. Choose from Russian-Ukrainian, Iranian, Mexican, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. In some instances, the food was equal to or better than restaurant quality.

We sampled a mushroom-stuffed chicken roll and a green bell pepper filled with seasoned ground beef and topped with sour cream (Russian). Both dishes were tender and succulent.

Next was a taste of Mexico with a made-to-order, well-textured chili relleno in mild chili sauce, and rice and refried beans in search of flavor. The best deal was a mini-taco filled with tender shredded pork (carnitas) and topped with guacamole, sour cream, salsa and cilantro ($1.50).

From Korea and China came sweet ’n’ briny heads-on prawns; a heap of kung pao chicken helped with Sriracha sauce; tasty and firm chow mein noodles (“The best I’ve had in Sacramento,” said world traveler Steve); and a signature Korean dish called bibimbap.

Bibimbap is a big bowl of veggies, rice, beef and strips of tofu, topped with a sunnyside-up egg. Steve poured broth on top, added kimchee and hot sauce, broke the egg yolk and mixed everything into a chunky conglomeration. Each forkful delivered a burst of flavor and texture.

For “dessert,” we bought a chebureki at the bakery. It was like an empanada, with a flaky crust filled with a layer of onion-heavy ground beef, dripping juices. Delicious.

At one point, we chatted with a fellow diner waiting in line, a guy with a smile on his face. He said he and his buddies had eaten at the food court 10 times and had barely made a dent in the menus. “We try something different every time,“ he said.

We’ll see him there soon.

Ode to the Emerald Isle

St. Patrick’s Day returns on Monday, when the Irish- and British-themed pubs in town will pour plenty of Guinness and serve plates heaped with corned beef and cabbage.

Among our favorite pubs on the “day of the green” is Brownie’s Lounge, where the vibe is old-school and the décor is, well, vintage. Owner Clair Brown reckons he’s cooked more than 275,000 pounds of corned beef during his 30-year career, and it shows – his version is among the best in town.

On Monday, he’ll serve succulent corned beef and cabbage from 11 am. to 7 p.m., accompanied by live music, dancers and bagpipers. The rest of the year, corned beef stacked on rye is made on Thursdays only.

Grab a bite at 5858 Land Park Drive, Sacramento; (916) 424-3058.

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