Toque to Toque: 99 Ranch Market vs. Super H Mart

Years ago, few of my Caucasian friends ventured the into local Asian food markets, where they would have found incredible produce, fish so fresh it was still swimming, and meat counters with products that could stare back at you.

It seems like white folks have gotten wise. And who could blame them? Beef filet for $3.99 a pound, fresh mussels for $1.99 for two pounds, and produce for a fraction of what you may find anywhere else in town. A friend once called me late at night, screaming about King Crab for $5.99 a pound.

Those finds are amazing, but not uncommon, especially at the city's new mega Asian markets.

Many of us have enjoyed the Mexican markets where fresh tortillas, whole pigs and wonderful Mexican cheeses can be found at a bargain rate, so perhaps this phenomenon was simply the next step in our food evolution. By shopping these marvelous markets we begin to stand more upright, dragging our knuckles out of the muck of overpriced, marginal-quality goods that many local grocers offer.

Whereas I do enjoy a leisurely stroll through our local Whole Foods and Central Market, something about the ethnic markets makes me grin and use a big cart instead of a small handbasket.

Today we want to give a few of these markets the toque treatment, and examine the food courts at a few local Asian markets. Most of the larger Asian markets will have a deli counter selling barbecued pork or crispy ducks (beak to bill), and these rich finds are almost always delicious. A few of the even larger markets have food courts, not too different from what you might find at a mall, with stalls offering myriad choices.

Since it's difficult to fairly compare two food courts, we decided to single out one ready-to-eat item sold at two different markets. We present: 99 Ranch Market vs Super H Mart in the Battle of the Bao.

(And by bao, here we mean the larger steamed wheat buns filled with lightly spiced pork.)

99 Ranch Market has a curious name that might suggest a hoedown and cattle rustlin', but we can assure you that it is 100-percent Asian, and serves up wonderfully fresh produce, incredibly priced fresh meats and superb seafood selections.

99 Ranch is an Asian-owned and operated chain that started in the Little Saigon area of Orange County. Roger Chen opened his first 99 Ranch in 1984 and now has 35 markets in four states, with four locations in Texas.

The market has stressed high quality and cleanliness, and it certainly has proven itself in both departments. The place is sparkling. Plano's 99 Ranch is nearly brand-new, but I'm confident its commitment to perfection will endure.

In visiting the market, you are almost drawn directly to the right of the store, past the wonderful bakery (which makes the American-styled bakeries seem anemic) to the vast deli arena, where you will find several areas of intrigue.

The first area you will happen upon sells dim sum, literally in the steamers. There is a pretty large selection considering this is a supermarket. Next, there is a buffet of hot foods, and a counter that sells the aforementioned duck and pig parts. Both duck and pig are crispy and delicious.

We ordered several large pork buns, along with a few other dim sum standards to check out their quality. Opening the Styrofoam containers, we beheld steam and a vision of perfection.

The buns were a disappointment. Although visually wonderful, they seem to have been sitting in their steamers a bit long (it was just before 7 p.m.) and were stuck to their paper wrappers. When we attempted to separate the paper on one bun, we actually ripped off its bottom. The taste wasn'tt much better, as the pork meat within had turned to rubber. Sad face.

Many of the other dim sum items were spot-on, but the bao was bad.

Next stop was to Super H Mart, located in Carrollton. Super H has been around for a few years and has a large fan base.

The choices are heavily Korean, but there are some attempts at Chinese and Japanese selections. We knew we had to buy our bao, so we made way to the dumpling bar run by the same team that's behind the Chef Hsu restaurant on Harry Hines in Dallas.

We order our bao and are told the order would take 15 minutes. The buns are sold in a half dozen pack for about $6, but you can buy one for $2, a righteous price for the very large bun.

We were eager to try this version since Chef Hsu has a wonderful reputation for quality. Tearing into the bun, we discovered a soft goodness of slightly chewy bun, and an even softer mix of pork that was a tidy meatball. The bun was as perfect as you could find, especially at 8 p.m.

We finished up our dishes and shuffled to the car, dizzy from bun overload. There was no doubt who would win this toque challenge, as Chef Hsu's Super H Mart location makes its buns daily, steaming them to order to preserve peak freshness.

Congratulations Chef Hsu; I look forward to stopping by the Harry Hines location for a bowl of something wonderful at the Harry Hines location.

Super H Mart 2625 Old Denton Road, Carrollton 972.323.9700

99 Ranch Market 131 W. Spring Creek, Plano 972.943.8999