If you’ve ever lived in Houston or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, you know what a big deal this is to have two of the country’s biggest and best-known Asian grocers opening 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,” Peter Tsai said on Instagram.
“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 and Austin’s new H-Mart within the past week, I can concur: These are the biggest grocery openings since Whole Foods’ 365 or even when Trader Joe’s first opened in Central Texas in 2013.
On Friday, when I was visiting family in California, I went to a 99 Ranch Market in San Diego and bought mochi, thin slices of pork belly and pineapple drinking vinegar. On Monday, I shopped at H-Mart at 11301 Lakeline Blvd. in Northwest Austin for sashimi, kimchi, miso and baby octopus. These were my first visits to both of these chains, but from what I’m hearing on social media, my first impression aligns with what longtime shoppers already know: These grocery chains 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 that there are millions of shoppers like me who didn’t grow up eating and cooking very 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 along all ends of this spectrum, not dumbing down the marketing materials or store presentation to cater to non-Asians while also making the shopping experience inclusive enough to be enjoyable to someone who has never shopped in an international market before.
The first Austin location of 99 Ranch Market doesn’t open until March 3, but this new 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 end caps 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,” but it’s 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.
One of the biggest draws to both Hana World Market and H-Mart are the food courts, where you can grab a bite to eat. The Austin location of H-Mart is home of the company’s first Market Eatery concept, where you’ll find sushi, Korean barbecue and fried chicken, Taiwanese shaved ice, a Tous Les Jours bakery, as well as live music and a craft beer bar. You’ll also find a cosmetic counter and a place to buy window treatments, including blinds and curtains.
North Austin was an obvious location for both new supermarkets, but as a resident of South Austin who lives not too far from several Korean churches and often laments the lack of Asian and Middle Eastern markets south of Lady Bird Lake, I asked the company if South Austin was on their radar for a possible second location.
“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.”
To take you on a virtual tour of the space, here are ten things to look out for when you get there:
- Dragonfruit greet you at the door. Turmeric, purple potatoes, pomelos tease your cart. Greens, green onions, carrots line the wall.
2. 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.
3. 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 were buying frozen and fresh fish, shellfish and octopus by the pound from fishmongers stationed in the middle of two rows of seafood.
4. Also in the seafood section, you’ll find sashimi-grade sushi to make your own poke, sashimi or nigiri. You can find the whole filets so you can practice cutting it at home, or you can buy a pick tray of sushi that looks fresher than any other you’ve seen at a grocery store.
5. Whole Foods’ 365 store just up U.S. 183 wins the mochi game with its mochi bar, but 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.
6. Few grocery stores, if any, sell dry aged prime T-bones and ribeyes, especially those that the butcher will slice fresh for you, but 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.
7. The Indian aisle of H-Mart is strong, too. Lentils, big bags of spices and snacks fill most of the shelves.
8. Kimchi and other banchan — the side dishes served alongside rice in Korean — fill one corner of the store, right next to the frozen dumpling section, which is divided by cuisine.
9. The food court is hoppin’, 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.
10. The crowds will be thick for weeks to come, but this store is a great place to take your kids. 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 or a $4 dragonfruit. For dinner last night, they made the “sushi” while I assembled poke bowls. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get them to try the octopus that’ll be on the menu tonight, but they are already asking when we’re going back to H-Mart.