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July 24, 2006

Mitsuwa Marketplace

Dominic Armato
Ethnic markets, especially those limited to a particular country's grub, are usually little mom and pop affairs. It's an immigrant neighborhood, and some enterprising soul opens up a little storefront and starts bringing in the specialty ingredients you can't get elsewhere, creating a tiny little ode to the entrepreneurial spirit. Half of the time, the size and lack of upscale refinement is part of their charm. Narrow aisles, scrawled signage, dim lighting obscuring unidentifiable delicacies -- they're the antithesis of the American supermarket chain.

And then there's Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Dominic Armato
I've been meaning to get there for years, and finally got around to it this past weekend. But despite hearing multiple reports of the incredible Japanese superstore hanging out in Arlington Heights, I still wasn't quite prepared. Most impressive, perhaps, is the full scope of the place. There's a big food market, to be sure, but it only occupies about half of the building. The rest contains a sizeable food court with five or six stalls, a liquor store, a bookstore, a travel agent, a video rental shop, a cellular phone store, a bakery, a specialty confectionery store and a cosmetics counter... all featuring Japanese products and services. The food court alone could probably support a few posts, posts that I suspect I'll have all too much fun researching, but on this particular day I made the mistake of having lunch before heading out there, so we'll save that for another time.

Dominic Armato
For a supermarket, Mitsuwa's grocery is perhaps a bit on the smallish size, but for an ethnic market it's enormous. Not only does it cover every base I could think of, but the selections contained within each section are extremely comprehensive. There's a near supermarket-sized produce section, containing all kinds of Japanese vegetables, fruits and herbs, many of them carefully and individually packaged, just as you'd find them in high-end food markets in Japan. Though I was disappointed to find that fresh yuzu wasn't available, I was quite tickled to find fresh wasabi root, which I've been grating and enjoying since. There are two fish cases, one filled with fresh and frozen varieties for cooking, and a huge cooler full of cleaned and trimmed fillets ready to be used as sashimi. We were there late on a Sunday, and as such I think the selection was fairly well picked over, and it was still the best I've seen Stateside. I brought home some maguro, salmon and even a little kampachi, all of which were quite good. There was even some chutoro (though no otoro), along with a slew of other tasty-looking numbers that I'd love to try.

Dominic Armato
Other sections are equally impressive. There's a cooler with an assortment of 30-40 pickled vegetables, at least 60 varieties of miso, hordes of soy sauces and Japanese salad dressings, a full aisle of instant ramen, housewares, pottery, frozen dumplings, rice cookers, rice crackers, rice flour, sacks of rice, candies and cookies, and a nice meat case that includes a fair amount of Wagyu, much of it sliced and ready for sukiyaki or shabu shabu. I didn't go over everything in excruciating detail, but that's mostly because I got the impression that it's all there, including a huge refrigerator case full of enough unidentifiable Japanese drinks to keep me busy for months.

Dominic Armato
It started as a joke, but has now become something of a tradition. Of course, I'm always looking to try new foods, but on every business trip to Japan I make it a rule to try a few mystery beverages. Any drink with packaging that clearly discloses the nature of the flavor is immediately disqualified. It's all about the surprise. So, figuring that Mitsuwa was as good a place as any to continue the tradition, I grabbed a can of Ramune Yasan. Sadly, Ramune Yasan, whatever that means, was indicative of a recent Japanese beverage trend. I've noted over the past couple of years that there seems to have been a remarkable increase in the number of bubble gum sodas available on the Japanese market. Who drinks bubble gum soda?!? Apparently I have my answer. Over the years, the mystery beverage tradition has yielded such gems as Aquarius, Qoo and Gokuri Squeeze, but recently it mostly seems to provide an abundance of nasty, artificial tasting overly sweet bubble gum soda. Eeeuuughhhgh.

Mitsuwa Marketplace
100 E. Algonquin Rd.
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
Open 365 days a year(!), 9am-8pm


Oh hell yes, Mitsuwa is the destination of many household daytrips. While not nearly as exciting as your soda roulette, I do have an unreasonable fondness for Boss coffee. Crap insta-coffee in a really great can - who could resist? I have it in my head that there are vending machines that actually heat the can before dispensing it - it sounds like such a bad idea (molten hot coffee under pressure in a flimsy metal can) I suspect it's legit.

I stumbled across your fabulous site via Gapers Block, I believe - well done. It makes for pretty good vicarious dining, and I was especially glad to see you've joined the Cult of (Hot) Doug. Great photos, too...

I think I would hate bubblegum soda. I don't really like bubblegum. Bubblegum flavor in soda form would just annoy, sadden, and frustrate me.

Thanks, Hayley :-)

Canned coffees are actually an underexploited subset of beverage roulette. I think it's because the first few I tried were pretty much the same, thusly eliminating the mystery factor. Clearly, Japanese beverage companies need to reallocate their R&D bucks from bubble gum sodas to strange and unusual canned coffee drinks.

Oh I LOVE Mitsuwa. As you can probably imagine, there are quite a few of them out here in Los Angeles. I didn't know they were in Chicago... I guess I can scratch the idea of taking you there next time you're in town.

We have one 5 minutes from work and go there for lunch all the time. Usually we all order ramen at Tampopo, the noodle shop in the food court, then while waiting for our orders to come up, go into the grocery section and pick up drinks and 1 or 2 choices of sashimi each (it's always wonderful and also dirt cheap). Then we go back to our table, open up all the sashimi and share it family-style along with our noodles.

If we're feeling saucy when finished, we sometimes go back into the grocery and pick up some Moci or other dessert to share.

I'm trying to look for this vitamin bubblegum flavored drink.You wouldn't happen to know the name of a few ..would you?

i hate this website i need website on GUM get it GUM

GUM. Got it. Gonna ignore it. Feel free to continue hating.

Ramune Yasan in Japanese means Ramune Vendor, or shop. Sakana Yasan, for instance, means fish store.
Is the Yasan version in the half litre can any different than the orignial in the glass bottle? I do love Ramune, especially as a kid and popping that glass bead into the bottle...classic. Apparently, the original, glass marble capped version of the bottle they still use was introduced in 1876.

A little tip - if you wait until 7 or 7:30pm, all sushi remaining in the fridge will be discounted.

Tensuke, the smaller, yet somewhat superior Japanese grocery store, just a mile south of Mitsuwa off Higgins and Arlington Hts Rd., also has a similar discount.

If you do want sashimi, and sushi for that matter, Tensuke's is frankly much, much better.

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