Earlier this week, City of Ater Kristy Yang told you about her less-than-stellar experience dining at the new 99 Ranch Market's food court. Since the market is a grocery store, not a restaurant, we thought we'd have her come back with a separate review of her shopping experience at the mega-Asian mart.
Try: Portugese Egg Tarts
Do not try: Durian (unless you're Andrew Zimmern or my mom)
My favorite section of any Asian market has always been the produce section. Beat down by the high cost of fruits and vegetables in my neighborhood's western grocery stores, Asian market produce sections are a must in my life. Where else could I find $1 bundles of basil and softball sized fuji apples? Entering 99 Ranch Market's behemoth produce section was my equivalent of entering the promised land. It is truly impressive.
The enormous section is pristine and stocked with every fruit and vegetable imaginable. On our visit during the soft opening of the store, a fuchsia flappy-winged oblong fruit caught my boyfriend's eye. "What is this?" he asked. "Dragonfruit," I replied excitedly. I immediately placed it in our cart. However, one tiny dragonfruit was $2. Luckily, there were employees cutting up samples of all the fruits for everyone to try. The dragonfruit wasn't as sweet as I'd like, so for the same price, I swapped one dragonfruit for a whole bag of lychees.
Something I rarely ever see in an Asian market is cut up and ready-to-go fruit. I didn't purchase anything from this section. That would be because of the cut-up durian. The nostril-hair singeing fruit is so notoriously smelly that it is banned in public areas of Singapore. The lingering stench of durian clings onto anything else in its proximity and is hell on fridges. Of my immediate family members, my mother is the only one who enjoys the fruit, and we would only let her eat it alone in our garage. Don't judge me until you've smelled it.
Walking around 99 Ranch Market, I reveled in how immaculately organized everything is. In an ideal world, all Asian markets would adhere to this attention to cleanliness and order. Scattered throughout the grocery store are well thought out displays, from multi-flavors of mochi to enormous jars of pork fu, my favorite shredded pork "condiment" from childhood. However, the best display of all is the section dedicated to the icing covered straw cookies known as Pocky. Points for nostalgia and for knowing your clientele.
As I rapturously snapped away on my camera, an employee walked up and politely told me that no pictures were allowed. This wasn't the first time that I had been told in an Asian establishment that I couldn't take pictures -- proprietary reasons, and all. Not wanting to cause any trouble, and with the market being as crowded as it was, I decided I'd have to return when all the commotion died down.
A few days after the grand opening, I returned for an early morning visit with my friend Cathy. As I walked ahead, pushing our grocery cart, Cathy followed behind me, serving as my stealthy investigative photographer.
Strolling through the market, we took turns photographing everything from indigo skinned Silkie chickens to Flintstone-sized racks of ribs. While marveling at the extensive variety, we also inspected the store's prices. Some prices are competitive, but others are noticeably higher. A 20-pack of the popular MAMA brand ramen at 99 Ranch Market hovers around $9-10, while it can be found for much less at a competing market. On average, prices range a dollar or two above mom-and-pop Asian grocery stores, but figuring in the Plano location and the impressive set-up, it's to be expected.
Cathy, a Filipina, was impressed with the amount of Filipino products in the store. However, in 99 Ranch Market's quest to be multi-culture encompassing, many brands that commonly can be found in other markets were missing. Ultimately, 99 Ranch Market is heavily Chinese. If my mother, who is Vietnamese, shopped at the market, she might not be able to find everything she would need. My father, who is Chinese, would feel very much at home.
One area I'm sure anyone would appreciate is 99 Ranch Market's breathtaking seafood section. As I walked up to the glass display cases and aquariums, the knowledgeable fishmonger offered his recommendations, from California wild sheep heads to Canadian perch. For me, however, the most exciting part of the seafood section is the area dedicated to cooked and prepared shellfish. My friend and I perused, amazed, through package after package of steamed baby clams, prepped blue crabs and fried fish. Note: Take advantage of the free fish frying and steaming service. Like most Asian markets, 99 Ranch Market offers to fry or steam any seafood you select for free.
After our seafood odyssey, we trekked over to the neighboring meats section. The variety, as is the trend with 99 Ranch Market, is incredible, but the morning we visited, all the proteins were still rock hard from the freezer. Prices were a little high to justify any purchases, but we took advantage of the beef tongue photo-op.
With this being Cathy's first visit to the market, we decided to set my previous disastrous food court experience aside to sample some small dishes.
Aside from underwhelming har gow, or steamed shrimp dumplings, everything we ordered was surprisingly pleasant. The har gow's dumpling skin is a tad thick, and the filling skimps on shrimp. The water chestnut in the dumpling, however, is delightfully crunchy. An order of pork and leek buns could have used a bit more pork, but the flavors and technique were spot-on. Steamed barbecued pork buns were abundant with meat, despite its bready appearance. Best of all were the Cantonese steamed spare ribs paired with pumpkin.
Since our snack turned out well, we decided to partake in dessert. My dad had been the guinea pig in my previous sojourn to the 99 Ranch Market's bakery. He gave their baked goods a mixed review ranging from really tasty to not so good. His assessment proved to be pretty accurate. A taro cake was ruined by an overwhelming presence of coconut. Good for coconut fans, but it's misleading for those seeking a taro dessert. Our multi-layered hazelnut cake fared much better. Each beautiful layer of this cake is inspired. A cookie bottom crust leads to a layer of raspberry jam, which leads to a wafer, which leads to hazelnut cream, leading to moist chocolate cake, and so on. The only misstep was the soggy tuile cookies on top of the cake, which can be blamed on refrigeration.
Our ultimate find, however, was the Portuguese Egg Tart. The custard inside the buttery, flaky shell is so thick and velvety that it comes close to crème brulee consistency. We had the good fortune of ordering a dozen fresh out of the oven. This single thing, alone, is reason enough for future visits to 99 Ranch Market.
It should be mentioned that both times I visited the checkout people in the grocery store section were incredibly sweet. At the risk of sounding nitpicky, however, after my second visit, I still noticed a few things the 99 Ranch Market food court could fix. After all, the rehearsal time of a soft and grand opening had come and gone. From a need for a more efficient ordering system to a lack of condiments (soy sauce and chili for the dim sum, etc.), these are all things 99 Ranch Market should be able to amend.
In the meantime, the market is more than worth exploring.
Basket: Lychees, basil, fuji apples, water spinach, a dozen Portuguese egg tarts.
99 Ranch Market
131 Spring Creek Parkway, Plano
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