For the first time in my life, probably–except for visiting Dairy Queens along I-40–I followed the advice of a billboard.
I was biking back from Elmhurst, following a third failed attempt to pick up my glasses from the half-assed insurance run optical shop, when I saw the little billboard for U-Mart, at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Broadway. Big red arrows promised it was nearby. Tiny print, too small to be read by passing motorists, promised all kinds of Asian delicacies.
I made the short detour to 56-02 31st Avenue, pulling up to the back door of the place, off 56th Street. First of all, it’s a novelty in NYC to have that set up with the back door into the parking lot. I felt like I was in L.A.
Then I really felt like I was in normal suburbia when I walked through the sliding auto doors and was deposited first of all in the beer section. I put a $4.99 six-pack of Tsing Tao in my basket and proceeded on.
Actually, I didn’t buy much more than beer, some 409 and a mango, because I knew I wouldn’t be cooking at home for a few days, but I saw plenty of intriguing things for a future visit:
- Wonton wrappers, both “Hong Kong style” and “Shanghai style”
- Skimmers, strainers and all sorts of other devices for picking deep-fried goodies out of hot oil
- Prepared Chinese deli snacks, the types of which I can’t really remember, but some involved chicken kidneys
- Reasonably priced organic milk
- Vats of olives, which aren’t the least bit Asian, but I guess every full-service grocery worth its salt now has to have the olive buffet. There was also a display of not-so-great faux-yuppie bread.
- Whole frozen eels
- Whole frozen ox penis
- Live fish, in aquariums placed right below the dead fish, fileted and plopped on ice. I wondered if the live guys could hear the sinister cha-thunk of cleavers on the heavy boards right behind them.
- Not the greatest-looking greens, which is surprising for a Chinese-run place. Not that these were bad, but they weren’t that crazy, lively, amazing kind of produce you usually see that makes you want to buy it that instant.
- But this was made up for by 13 different brands of fish sauce! I mean, you’ve got your Squid brand, your Golden Boy, your Tsiparos, but, whoa, most of these I’d never even seen before. Hot diggity.
- Also, a huge selection of frozen stuff, from dumplings to lemongrass to kaffir lime. Sure, it’s nice to get this stuff fresh (which I think they also had), but frozen is still better than nothing in/around Astoria, which is generally a Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese wasteland.
So, U-Mart, final review: pretty damn good, and the closest fully stocked pan-Asian grocery to Astoria.
Here in Astoria proper, you can find a few things on random shelves: for instance, the Guyanese-run grocery on 36th Ave and 33rd St has fish sauce and dried shrimp, and the produce place on 31st St right under the Ditmars train stairs has fish sauce and noodles. But no consistent source of greens or other condiments.
After I left the store, I went around the front to see the main facade. Huh–I’ve been biking by the place on my way to Jackson Heights for years, but I guess there was a tree in the way of the sign, or I just wrote off the whole block of shops because it started with the Bagelman of Woodside.
The weird thing is that since I went to U-Mart, I’ve now seen its ads everywhere–random flyers on the street, guys with a U-Mart sandwich board outside the Steinway subway stop, etc. But you heard it here first: U-Mart wants to feed you some chicken kidneys!