Sunday, July 26, 2009

Seafood City in Eagle Rock

It's always fantastic when you come across things sitting right in front of you that you know nothing about. The sense that one knows hardly anything about anything -- even the places in our own neighborhood -- creates a dizzying sense of possibility. I don't know, and can't pretend to know, much about Filipino food, but it's to Seafood City's credit that my handful of trips there have made me want to learn about it.

Seafood City in Eagle Rock Plaza is probably what you would expect a Filipino market to be -- it's just not where you'd expect to find it. The grocery store occupies one of the anchor store sections of Eagle Rock Plaza. The other anchor stores are Target and Macy's. So right there, in between GameStop and Footjoy and the anime store is a big grocery store with a huge seafood selection.

Most of the people I know who visit Eagle Rock Plaza begin and end their trips to the mall at Target, almost never venturing out of Target into the center of the mall itself. When I visited Seafood City on Friday afternoon, I went in through the mall's central entrance on the ground floor. The first thing you see as you enter is Manny Pacquiao on t-shirts hanging at Fil-Mart on your right, with the PNB Remittance Center on the left. As you walk into the center of the mall, you pass Jollibee, a kind of Filipino fast food place (apparently the most popular fast food in the Phillipines), which serves American-style burgers, fried chicken, and Filipino dishes. As you cross the center of the mall toward the entrance to Seafood City, you are hit with a bouquet of smells not usually associated with a trip to the mall: vinegar, fish, ripe mango, curry mixes, banana catsup, etc.

I went to the store for mangoes and some fruit. They had plenty of that: I knew I was in the right place when I saw a wall of ripe Mexican mangoes in boxes for $5.99 each. I got what I came for.

But Seafood City also has: a table of glutinous rice sweets, often covered in coconut shavings, in various colors, approximately 30 different types of rice, including a house brand of jasmine rice available in 40-pound bags (stacked six feet high), a wall of baked goods (e.g., pan de coco, bean cakes, yam cake, pan de pina, pan de sal, ube cakes), an entire freezer case full of one flavor: Nestle Classic Luscious Mango, a full aisle of different types of vinegar (e.g., coconut vinegar, palm vinegar, various fish sauces), four-kilogram jugs of UFC Banana Ketchup, Red Horse Malt Liquor from Manila, an encyclopedic array of ramen (including Pancit Canto [chow mein chili and citrus flavor]), Japanese and Chinese candies and snacks, an aisle full of different types of Zojirushi rice makers, a corner full of standard U.S. (military?) style hot dogs and cold cuts (and Filipino variations), dozens of Filipino chips and fried things (e.g., roast beef chips, Crispy Porky pork-flavored chips, ham-and-cheese-flavored chips, prawn chips) and, of course, a very fine selection of fish and seafood (e.g., milkfish, rabbit fish, baby octopus, gigantic carp, tilapia, etc.), laying out on ice right there to be inspected with tongs by the customers.

I picked up some bibingka (glutinous rice cakes), some little square cakes filled with ube (a type of purple yam apparently popular with Filipinos -- there was a big selection of ube-flavored ice cream in the frozen section), and some kababayan (Filipino cupcakes). I also picked up a bag of the Porky chips for Mrs. Octopus.

Filipino singer, actress, and TV host Sharon Cuneta's image appears on the walls everywhere in the store, and on a video-commercial playing at checkout. The store is, by most accounts, the heart of Eagle Rock's substantial Filipino population. Many of the customers seemed to be pretty familiar with the cashiers at check-out; the place felt like a neighborhood corner store that people came to all the time.

I had a snack afterward at Chow King, a Filipino fast food place attached to Seafood City that features a menu of Chinese-influenced and Filipino-style dishes (and a very impressive-looking Halo-Halo, which I will have to try next time; when I do try it, I will probably attempt to draw connections between the "mix-mix" dessert and the fascinating crazy-quilt nature of Tagalog). I had noodles with a shrimp sauce at Chow King: the sauce had a (to my taste) weird but intriguing vinegary taste and smell that grew on me as I ate.

Eagle Rock Plaza has been referred to as the Mall of Manila, given the significant number of Filipino shops and restaurants that have opened there over the past several years, and the prominence of the place in Eagle Rock's Filipino community (as of 2005, 6,000 of Eagle Rock's 30,000 residents were Filipino).

After you're done picking up toilet paper, shampoo, and garbage bags, it's worth wandering out of Target to get a glimpse of the vibrant heart of our neighborhood's Filipino community.

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