If you’ve ever lived in Houston or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, you know what a big deal it is to have two of the country’s biggest and best-known Asian grocery chains opening stores here within a month of each other.
“When H-Mart comes to town, that’s when you know your city has graduated to the big leagues of Asian groceries,” my fellow foodie and Instagram friend Peter Tsai said last week, just a few days after the store opened. “Grocery shopping game changer for sure,” is how @theburgervore put it. “This is even nicer than the one in Houston or Dallas!”
Having been to both a 99 Ranch Market in San Diego and Austin’s new H-Mart this month, I can concur: These are the biggest grocery openings since Whole Foods’ 365 or even since Trader Joe’s first opened in Central Texas in 2013.
While visiting family in California, I picked up a few goods for the weekend at 99 Ranch Market, including mochi, shrimp crisps and pineapple drinking vinegar. I gawked at the selection of seafood and thinly sliced meats that were already prepped for pho or Korean barbecue.
My first day back in Austin, I went to the H-Mart at 11301 Lakeline Blvd. in Northwest Austin and was delighted to find a similarly modern store, with Instagram-friendly design and on-trend foods prominently displayed, plus a large food court and a grocery area filled with bright, high-quality produce; dried and fresh noodles; meat and seafood; and aisles of snacks, sauces and condiments.
These were my first visits to both of these chains, but from what I’m hearing on social media, my initial impression aligns with what longtime shoppers already know: These grocers mean serious business.
They cater first and foremost to shoppers with cultural roots in the nearly 50 countries that make up Asia, but they know there are millions of shoppers like me who didn’t grow up eating and cooking much authentic Asian food but are increasingly familiar with the ingredients and culinary styles.
Both stores have figured out how to sell thousands of products to people all along this spectrum, not dumbing down the marketing materials or store presentation to cater to non-Asians but also making the shopping experience inclusive enough to be enjoyable for someone who has never shopped in an international market before.
I haven’t seen the inside of the first Austin location of 99 Ranch Market, which opens March 3, but the Austin H-Mart is slick. It’s housed in a huge, 68,670-square-foot space that used to be a Sports Authority and Bed Bath & Beyond. The owners painted the ceiling black so it doesn’t look so cavernous, and each section is well labeled to help shoppers sort through the products. The aisles are compact, with endcaps selling the hottest items, from canned lattes to frozen fish balls.
The store has a different vibe than the 100,000-square-foot MT Supermarket over on North Lamar, which opened in 1984 and will continue to maintain the title of Austin’s largest Asian store. H-Mart is more similar to Hana World Market on Parmer Lane or Han Yang on Airport Boulevard, two large Korean markets that some longtime shoppers, including Tsai, say are likely already feeling the pressure to compete with H-Mart. Hana World Market opened in 2011, and Han Yang has been around since the mid-1990s; both carry a similar product lineup, but as homegrown stores, they lack the feel of a national grocery chain.
One of the biggest draws to both Hana World Market and H-Mart is the food courts, where you can grab a hot bite to eat or dessert. The Austin location of H-Mart is home to the company’s first Market Eatery concept, where you’ll find sushi, Korean barbecue and fried chicken, Taiwanese shaved ice and a Tous Les Jours bakery, as well as live music and a craft beer bar. You’ll also find a cosmetics counter and a place to buy window treatments.
Already home to more than two dozen international markets and a concentration of Asian households, North Austin was an obvious location for both new supermarkets. Is South Austin on their radar for a possible second location of H-Mart?
“We explored all options when looking for a location. However, this specific location (in North Austin) gave us the best opportunity to create a huge, redesigned H-Mart and 25,000 square feet for the Market Eatery,” Stacey Kwon, president of H-Mart and daughter of the chain’s founder and CEO Il Yeon Kwon, said in an email. “Right now, we are focusing our efforts on making this location have one of the best and most customer-oriented experiences, so we are devoting 100 percent of our attention to that. But, that said, we certainly see the potential for expansion in Austin and are excited to be a part of the community.”
10 THINGS TO LOOK FOR AT H-MART
- You won’t find quite as many live fish tanks as you’ll find at MT Supermarket, but they do have fish swimming in beautiful blue tanks in the back corner of the store. Most of the shoppers on the day I visited were buying frozen and fresh fish, shellfish and octopus by the pound from fishmongers stationed in the middle of two rows of seafood.
- Also in the seafood section, you’ll find sashimi-grade sushi to make your own poke, sashimi or nigiri. You can find the whole fillets so you can practice cutting it at home, or you can buy a tray of sushi that looks fresher than any other I’ve seen at a grocery store.
- Your first sight when you walk in the door? The biggest pile of dragon fruit you’ve likely ever encountered. Turmeric, purple potatoes and pomelos may find their way into your cart. Greens, green onions, carrots and large bags of bean sprouts line the wall.
- Ceramic nonstick cooking pans, called Eco-Tech Pots, take up much of the kitchen section, but you’ll also find all the fun bowls, tea sets and kawaii kid stuff you’d expect at an Asian houseware store.
- Whole Foods’ 365 store just up U.S. 183 wins the mochi game with its colorful mochi bar; H-Mart has the same self-serve setup with more than a dozen kinds of frozen fish balls, which can be fried, simmered, steamed or sauteed.
- Few grocery stores, if any, sell dry-aged prime T-bones and rib-eyes, especially those that the butcher will slice fresh for you — you’ll find both at H-Mart. Also in the meat section, you’ll find rolled-up frozen meats, thinly sliced, ready for Vietnamese pho or the Japanese hotpot called shabu-shabu, as well as slightly thicker cuts for Korean barbecue.
- The Indian aisle of H-Mart is strong, too. Lentils, big bags of spices and snacks fill most of the shelves.
- Kimchi and other banchan — the side dishes served alongside rice in Korea — fill one corner of the store, right next to the frozen dumpling section, which is divided by cuisine.
- The food court is very busy, and my gut tells me it will be for some time. With more than half a dozen eateries, including Tous Les Jours bakery, SnoMo shaved ice, a Korean fried chicken place and a craft beer bar, it’ll compete with just about every other lunch option in the area.
- Grocery stores are meant to be places of curiosity and wonder, and this store is a great place to take your kids to show them the delight in getting out of whatever shopping and cooking routine you’re in. When we go to international markets, I always let mine pick out products that appeal to them, even if it’s a candy sushi-making kit they saw on YouTube or a bag of chips they might not finish.
Baby octopus was in Addie’s grocery cart last week, and she hosted a livestream from her kitchen to talk about how to clean and cook it and what kinds of dishes you might serve it in. Check out the video at facebook.com/austin360.