After weeks of tsunami devastation, earthquake aftershocks, and nuclear meltdown filling the headlines, it's nice to be able to celebrate Japan in a positive way--with food.
A not-so-well-balanced meal at Uwajimaya.
Last week, Japanese superstore Uwajimaya opened a new Bellevue location, moving the original store from 15555 N.E. 24th St. to 669 120th Ave. N.E. and nearly doubling its size after more than 25 years. Anyone used to shopping at the Seattle flagship market (there are two others, in Renton and Beaverton, Ore.) won't find much unique here, but for those who frequented the old Bellevue location, this new one looks like a palace--a palace filled with ready-to-eat Japanese food items, fresh produce, an impressive sake assortment, and meat you likely won't find anywhere else nearby--comparatively.I stop by Bellevue's Uwajimaya just one day after they opened the doors, and the place is clearly already a destination. Grey-haired women poke and sniff Asian pears in the produce section, families sit down to bowls of steaming ramen from the café and give pork-filled buns to the smallest kids, men wander the selection of imported and domestic beer, couples browse the candy aisle picking up bags of fruit-flavored jellies and packs of chocolate-covered Pocky. Some of the shelves already have bare spots waiting to be restocked. Despite the bustle and obvious opening-weekend growing pains, the place is operating smoothly and staff seems to know their stuff--good news considering the official grand-opening party is next month.
When my friends and I arrive, we're starving, and head immediately to the food counter. Unlike Uwajimaya's Seattle location, there's no food court here boasting cuisine from around Asia and baked goods to match. Instead, just one corner of the market is dedicated to take-out food.
There is a case piled with colorful bento boxes, onigiri (snack-sized rice balls filled with salmon, tuna salad, pickled plums, and more), and sushi rolls of all shapes and sizes. Purists will note that the quality leaves a lot to be desired here--it's not easy to make good sushi rice, especially when it sits in a refrigerated case for a while before being eaten--but in a pinch, you can pick up lunch for less than $10 and in less than 10 minutes.
We complement our cold lunch with a few items from the hot food counter, where tubs of prepared Chinese-style dishes like Mongolian beef and stir-fried veggies sit ready to be spooned onto rice, slabs of barbecue pork hangs from hooks, and a menu spells out all you can order: noodle soups, rice bowls, meat-filled buns, and more. We end up with one bowl of ramen and another of udon, two gyoza (the Japanese term for ordinary pot-stickers), and a katsu donburi (rice topped with fried pork, onion, and egg). Considering we're eating in a supermarket, the food isn't bad, though it's plagued with the normal fast-food issues: It's overly salted and only mildly warm instead of hot. I finish my meal satiated but dreaming of supermarkets in Japan, each with a basement floor filled with ready-to-eat food stands far superior to what you'll find anywhere in the U.S.
As for ingredients, there is plenty of variety here, and certainly more specifically Japanese items than you'll find at any generic Asian store in the area. Look for rolled sponge cakes, mochi filled with red bean paste, frozen croquettes, microwaveable dumplings, green-tea ice cream, thick-cut shoku pan for toast, bags of udon noodles, tubs of miso paste, tiny containers of pickled everything, dried squid, taro root, rambutan, marbled beef for shabu shabu, sashimi-worthy tuna, fresh fish cakes, and oysters from recognizable farms ranging from Hama Hama to Miyagi. And it's not all food--as in the Seattle Uwajimaya, there's also an adorable array of stationery, a few cookbooks, some cooking and kitchen items, plus Japanese brands of personal hygiene and cleaning products.
For a Japanese lunch, you may find somewhere better nearby, but for a cheap lunch and your weekly grocery trip? There's nowhere better than this.