San Francisco’s “Ethnic” Markets: Sunset Super
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Supermarkets, as I experienced them growing up in San Jose, California, were dismal places. Lucky’s, Albertsons, Safeway, ad-literally-nauseum, all shitty, unnaturally glowing cubes of drab consumerism. The dull familiarity of Safeway’s antiseptic smell always caused my heart to plummet when I would accompany my mom or dad on a shopping trip. Even as a young sprout I was already primed for S.F.’s general disdain of all things corporate and homogenous. If you closed your eyes and felt with your nostrils the air around you, there was nothing to suggest the presence of food stuff.
Not so with any of the billion “ethnic” markets and supermarkets dotted around the suburban hellscape of the South Bay. I remember going to a small Iranian market on Bascom Avenue near The StreetLight Records with my dad one afternoon. The first thing I did was wrinkle my nose, and then sneeze violently. The strange stenches reaching my nose were no more sinister than cumin, coriander, clove, paprika, zatar, ras al hanout, i.e., un packaged spices evoking a strangeness that made my head swim. On the other side of town, just east of El Centro, I once followed my father into a Latino market, this one slightly larger than the Iranian one, and was assaulted by undisguised funk of strange meat and blood emanating from the butcher counter, where cuts of quivering, alien hunks of flesh were displayed with a garish barbarity, or so it seemed to me at the time (what a little racist I was).
Years later, now living in San Francisco and possessed of at least a faux-cosmopolitan disposition towards weird foreign shit, I wandered into a large Asian market on Irving Street and 26th, in the mid Sunset District. Aside from the insane variety of tofu and fermented products, the part that was remarkable for me at that time was the meat and seafood section. They had everything. Large tanks of querious catfish, long displays of glistening mussels, oysters, clams, sea urchin laid out on ice. Oh, and a few buckets of frogs, large ones, and alive, alive enough to want to get the fuck out of those buckets. I came back last week, a good ten years having elapsed, and the buckets of frogs were gone. Presumably, one got out of the bucket, made it down an aisle and out the door and hopped directly to PETA’s doorstep, to croak in its best patois that heinous things were happening to amphibians down in the Sunset. Sunset Super may have changed their live animal handling practices somewhat, but you can still get whatever crazy cut of flesh you feel like throwing in a pan, or the stinkiest brick of tofu likely to make your recently transplanted Midwestern roommate retch in horror. It’s a palace, so go their and pretend to be a prince or princess with a taste for the outré.