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Cultures of food around the city: ethnic grocery store roundup

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Trying a new dish or exotic cuisine for dinner doesn’t have to mean a trip out to a restaurant. In the greater Sacramento area, many grocery stores and small, often family-owned shops offer all the authentic, hard-to-find ingredients needed to make anything from Italian to Japanese to Mediterranean foods for dinner.

The Sacramento Press hit the streets to round up some of these ethnic grocery stores here in the city.

Sampino’s Towne Foods
1607 F St.

Monday through Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Saturday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Sampino’s Towne Foods is a family-owned Italian market with fresh pasta, sandwiches, sausages and imported cheeses, deli meats a
The timbale is made with puff pastry, penne pasta, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, salami, provolone, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms
The Sampanini sandwich is made with mortadella, coppa and salami meats and provolone and cheddar cheese on a ciabatta roll.

Sampino’s Towne Foods carries the essential items needed to make an authentic Italian dinner at home as well as foods made from family recipes accumulated throughout the years, said Bill Sampino, the father of owner Michael Sampino who has had many years of experience as a butcher in Sacramento.

For 17 years, Bill Sampino managed the meat department at a Corti Brothers and then moved on to work for David Berkeley Fine Wines/Foods for 19 years before retiring and deciding to open up the small store with his son and daughter-in-law Gabi Sampino.

They hand-make all of their fresh pastas, including ravioli, tortellini and agioloti throughout the day. There are 52 flavors of freshly made pastas with doughs flavored from tomato, basil and spinach to a chocolate dessert pasta.

The glass counters in the store display delicacies such as homemade meatballs, lasagna and timbale – an eye-catching Sicilian dish made with puff pastry filled with penne pasta, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, salami, provolone, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms. They make a variety of sausages, including Calabrese and Sicilian styles, Bill Sampino said.

The cheeses, sandwich meats and desserts are imported weekly from Italy. Bill Sampino said that 90 percent of the desserts – such as their tiramisu, cannoli filled with authentic mascarpone cheese, frutti di bosco and a chocolate fudge cake – are imported weekly from Italy.

Carmen and Jose Chiapa from Natomas said they have been going to Sampino’s Towne Foods for a couple of years, and they raved about all of the foods they have eaten there.

“They make the best sandwiches,” said Carmen Chiapa, whose favorite sandwich is the Sampanini – a popular sandwich with slices of mortadella, coppa and salami meats and provolone and cheddar cheese on a ciabatta roll.

“The bread is so crispy, and the meat is delicious. It’s not a heavy meal – it’s a very light sandwich.”

Mediterranean Market
1547 Fulton Ave.

Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

The Mediterranean Market has been providing authentic, imported food products from all over the Mediterranean region since 1991.
The Mediterranean Market receives fresh baklava daily.
There is an aisle dedicated to Halva and Tahini, two sesame-based products, at the Mediterranean Market

Since 1991, the family-owned Mediterranean Market has been providing customers with a variety of Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Persian and other Mediterranean food products, said owner Sam Abughazaleh. Ninety-five percent of the products are imported from places such as Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, France, Belgium, Russia and Ukraine.

The Mediterranean Market carries more than 10 types of imported feta cheeses – including Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Jordanian and Russian – a large selection of extra-virgin olive oils imported from all over the Mediterranean and many different fresh olives.

An entire shelf is dedicated to different types of halva – a sweet candy made from sesame seeds – and tahini, a sesame product used to make hummus. An aisle is dedicated to different herbal teas and coffees, and there is a refrigerator filled will different types of cheeses. Rose water and pomegranate molasses used a lot in Mediterranean food and drinks can be found as well, Abughazaleh said. There are more than 100 different spices, both in bulk and in small amounts.

The butcher and meat section of the store carries all halal meats because the market caters to many people of Muslim religion that are required to eat halal meat, Abughazaleh said. Halal ensures that there is no torture for the animals when they are butchered by slitting the throat only once and allowing the blood to drain, he explained.

The meat selection includes naturally fed chicken, goat, lamb, veal and beef that are delivered every morning from Dixon Farms. Rice plates with meat and tabouleh salad are also made daily and typically sell out by 3 p.m., Abughazaleh said. Freshly made baklava is shipped to the store every day from Shatila Food Products, a bakery in Michigan.

Kaveri Indian Groceries
1148 Fulton Ave. Suite D

Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Friday through Sunday 11 a.m – 10 p.m.

Kaveri Indian Grocery carries spices, snacks, frozen foods and many products used in authentic Indian Cuisine.
Ghee is a lightly-flavored spread similar to butter and used in Indian cooking.
Ghee is a lightly-flavored spread similar to butter and used in Indian cooking.

Reena Suresh and her husband run Kaveri Indian Groceries, which opened in 2003. Suresh said the items at the store cater toward Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani foods.

Cumin, tumeric, garam masala and curry powder – the popular spices in Indian cuisine, according to Suresh – are just a few of the products that can be found in the aromatic shelves of spices. Suresh said they also carry 25 to 30 different kinds of lentils, a common staple in Indian cuisine. There is a wide variety of different rices, from Basmati to a red rice that Suresh said is lower in sugar and popular for those with diabetes.

Hard-to-find products such as ghee – a lightly flavored version of butter used in many Indian dishes – tamarind, chutney, relish and various kinds of pickles can be purchased at Kaveri Indian Grocery. Suresh said a popular item is the canned mango pulp that can be blended with yogurt to make the mango lassi drink found at Indian restaurants.

Frozen meals, curries and restaurant-style samosas are also available. Products are delivered twice a week from distributors in the Bay Area, which receive them from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Australia, Canada and other places overseas.

Suresh said the store carries fresh fruits and vegetables, including lychee, guava, okra, Thai chili, coconut and bittermelon whenever they are in season.

Corti Brothers
5810 Folsom Blvd.

Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Corti Brothers located at East Sacramento has been in business since 1947.
Corti Brothers has an Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale from 1650.
Rita Smith (left),70, and Kye Phelps, 57, look-over the wine selection.

Corti Brothers started in 1947 downtown and over the years had different locations in Sacramento, and it is now a single store in East Sacramento.

Corti Brothers Corporation President Darrell Corti writes a newsletter that has gone out to customers nationally for almost 40 years. Through the store’s website, customers from all over the country can view and order their products, according to Store Director Rick Mindermann, 51.

Prime rib roast, corned beef, lamb and veal are some of the items that can be purchased from the Corti Brothers meat section.

"We are a true butcher shop," Mindermann said. "Our veal is well-known because of the quality of the product that we have and the quality of the way it’s butchered."

The store is also famous for the ravioli that they have been making since 1947, Mindermann said.

Corti brought and introduced real balsamic vinegar to the U.S. in 1982 and it is sold at the store, he added.

A full-service grocer and wine merchant, the store offers more than 1,000 different wines from all over the world, including the country of Georgia, Thailand and China, said Corti.

Occasionally, the store offers its own label of wine, which Corti selects. The store under its own label offers an early landed cognac from the 1970s. These cognacs are bought young in France, and the barrel is sent to England to mature in a government warehouse for decades and then are bottled and shipped to the US, Mindermann said.

"It’s a long drive, but it’s worth it," said Kye Phelps, a regular customer from Volcano, Calif. Phelps comes to shop at Corti Brothers monthly, and she said that she used to come weekly when she was still attending a church in Sacramento.

Oto’s Markeplace
4900 Freeport Blvd.

Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Oto’s Marketplace is a Family owned grocery located at Freeport Boulevard.
Oto’s Sushi Chef Ray Yamamoto,49, shows his sushi-creation, the Oto’s Roll.
A Tako or Octopus is sold at Oto’s.

Oto’s Marketplace is a family-owned Japanese specialty grocery store that has been in business for 35 years. After outgrowing their two previous locations the store has relocated to Freeport Boulevard. The grocery was started by Ted Oto in 1979. His wife, Mollie, runs the kitchen operations, his son Michael manages the meat and fish department and his other son, Russell, serves as the general manager. Ted’s daughter, Florence Oto-Wong, helps out with kitchen operations, and his other daughter, Cheryl Inouye, assists with finances of the business, according to the Oto’s Marketplace website.

"There are other Asian groceries that has Japanese products, but not as extensive as ours,"Oto said.

A wide variety of fresh seafood products such as shrimp, albacore, yellowfin tuna, bigeye tuna and even octopus are offered in the store.

"We emphasize on the freshness of our fish, so you can eat it raw," General Manager Russell Oto, 53, said, describing the store’s sushi-grade seafood selections, which are cut into blocks to be easily sliced into sushi or sashimi pieces.

The store’s kitchen offers Japanese bentos – lunchbox-style packaging that has portions of chicken, rice and pickles, Oto said.

At the sushi bar, they offer nine different styles of freshly packed sushi rolls, such as the spider roll, California roll, spicy tuna roll and Unaten roll. Oto’s sushi Chef Ray Yamamoto said that his California rolls – though they may have the same name as the ones offered in other Japanese restaurants and groceries – are different because his are made of 100 percent snow crab, others might use imitation snow crab.

The sushi bar also has an Oto’s roll, an exclusive-to-the-store roll made of tuna, hamachi, salmon, albacore and crab stick roll topped with tobiko and green onions, Yamamoto said.

Specialized meat such as Kobe-style beef and Kurobuta pork are some of the rare items they sell in the store, Oto added.

"The mileage is not too important,” said Fred Furukawa, a customer born and raised in Hawaii who now lives in North Sacramento. “It’s getting what you want so that you can enjoy food and things. Oto’s has the kinds of food and things that I grew up with."

Seafood City Supermarket
6051 Mack Road

Daily 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Seafood City Supermarket located in South Sacramento has more than 96 employees in different departments.
Customers of Seafood City picks their favorite from the fruits and produce section.
The Lechon: A Filipino-style roast pig can be purchased on the weekends in Grill City, Seafood City
Supermarket’s restaurant.

Philippine-imported shirts and bags, health and beauty products and handicrafts such as the Parol – a Filipino Christmas lantern – are some of the unique items sold at Seafood City, an Asian supermarket that specializes in Filipino ethnic goods.

The Sacramento store opened in November 2003 and is one in a chain of 22 stores in the U.S., said Store Manager Bernard Reyes.

Tilapia, pampano, salmon heads,mahi-mahi and milkfish are some of the fish they clean and fry for free, Reyes said. The seafood is delivered fresh to the store from the distribution center in Pomona, Calif. They also buy from local vendors specially for fresh meat and produce, he added.

Last year, the store opened Grill City, its own restaurant offering Filipino dishes including palabok noodles, lumpia (egg rolls), grilled salmon, grilled mahi-mahi, and even traditional Filipino lechon – roast pig – on the weekends, Reyes said.

Crispy pata – fried pork knuckles, chicken inasal and chicharon bulaklak are some of their ready-to-go hot foods, Reyes added.

Native Filipino condiments such as bagoong – a condiment made of salt and fermented fish or shrimp – and banana ketchup can be found on the aisles of the condiment section with other Asian ethnic condiments from wasabi to teriyaki sauces.

South Sacramento resident Lina Labra, 64, said that she goes to Seafood City to do her grocery shopping because it is the only place she can find all the ingredients she needs to cook her sinigang na bangus, a Filipino dish.

What are your favorite specialty ethnic grocery stores in Sacramento? Share you suggestions and experiences in the conversation below.

This article was co-written with Evelyn Santillan

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John Hernandez

  • Don’t forget Mercado Loco on Franklin!

  • Davi Rodrigues

    There was an explosion of ethnic stores in the area, and California as a whole during the 90’s and early 2000 decades, but now many of them are failing, or have failed. Waves of immigration fueled the growth, but once established, a huge section of that retail business ends up in the hands of the big boy retailers, as it was destined to. In addition, many ethnic store owner such as those from India, Pakistan, Mexico, and middle east, although merchants to their very core in their home countries, were unprepared to do business in California. They signed costly leases, and discovered regulations. Add to that the recessions, lawsuits, and family bickering, and the lifespans of these stores followed a similar pattern. So many changed hands to extend that pattern also.

  • William Burg

    Some are relative newcomers, but many of downtown Sacramento’s ethnic groceries have roots going back decades, some even to Sacramento’s old ethnic neighborhoods–the New Roma bakery on E and 18th, for example, is the descendant of the old Roma Bakery, an Italian-owned bakery that was once downtown at 3rd and J Street.

    My favorites are Italian Importing on J Street and 19th, a great place for sandwiches, Italian cooking staples and cheese (sometimes I just walk in to smell the place, as it reminds me of stepping into my grandmother’s kitchen) and Cheung Hing on 11th and T, a Chinese grocery store with a lunch counter in the back with inexpensive combo plates and dim sum (they are connected to the Capitol Tea Garden restaurant around the corner.)

  • nice job and great photos

  • Amy Wong

    What an awesome round-up!

  • Krissy Holst

    What an incredible collection you both put together. Thank you so much- it is nice to see what the stores have to offer and have all the information in one place. Great job!

  • Thanks for this update – keep these articles coming!

  • Amabelle Ocampo

    John, Thanks for this article and photos. So many great places to try something new.

  • John Hernandez

    Thanks guys!

  • Now if only I could find Hungarian food.
    The one “Hungarian” place in Sacramento us Cafe Marika. It’s yummy but not really Hungarian. The food was good but more Germanic and when Hungarian was spoken by my family we were told they were Chech. I’m not an ethnic snob but I’m dying for goulash as good as I had in Budapest. I’m not a cook and Grandma isn’t around anymore. Woe is me. 😉

    • I’m heading my way to all those markets though.. Thank you for the article!!

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