Ever since KoMart -- the long-standing Korean grocery store on Gessner -- closed earlier this year, the Asian grocery scene in Spring Branch has been dominated by Super H Mart and the newer 99 Ranch Market.
They're both large national chains, and they're both based in California. Super H Mart was the first of the chains to hit Houston, opening in a refurbished Randall's on Blalock in the summer of 2008 with the kind of fanfare last seen when IKEA opened just down the freeway. A little over a year later, 99 Ranch Market opened up to just as much fanfare in the old Fiesta location right down the street. Ever since, Blalock has been home to two of the city's best Asian supermarkets -- a boon if you live on the west side, and easy enough to travel to if you don't.
Much of Houston's attention has been focused on the battle between the Kroger's on Buffalo Speedway and its new competitor, the shiny and modern Buffalo Market H-E-B just across the street. But there's a far more intriguing, if less showy, battle going on between the Asian superstores in Spring Branch.
Which one reigns supreme?
Super H Mart
Parking: Easy. The lot is very big, with plenty of room to manuver and enter/exit. There's also some shade thanks to some oak trees cattycorner to the store, a welcome refuge during Houston's summer months.
Food Court: Awesome. Toreore, the fried-chicken stand that's dominated the food court since Super H Mart opened, is still going strong, as is the wonderful bakery, Tous Les Jours. Some of the original food stands have since closed (R.I.P. kimchee fried rice; you were addictive and gone far too soon) and made way for somewhat shadier-looking joints, but the food remains great -- especially the bibimbap and bulgogi on the far end of the food court. Pro tip: Stake out a table before you order and leave someone there to guard it, at all costs.
Grocery Store: Vast. There's virtually no Asian staple you won't find at Super H Mart, and you certainly won't find a better selection of kimchee -- even the wonderfully muted, freshly made kind -- anywhere in town. The fish section is perhaps the greatest draw, with a nearly endless variety of whole fish and seafood, along with fishmongers ready to slice it up any way you see fit. Bonus: Food sampling sessions on the weekends rival that of Sam's and Costco; you barely need to each lunch.
99 Ranch Market
Parking: Heinous. The sole reason that Fiesta moved from this location is that the parking lot wasn't large enough to contain all the vehicles of people who would be coming to the immense store. It's gridlocked worse than an L.A. freeway, especially on the weekends. Add in the fact that you're on a busy feeder road, and the parking situation is a nightmare.
Food Court: Great. If you like dim sum, that is. And if you do, then you're in a for a treat. The dim sum at 99 Ranch Market's food court is served all day long, and it's super cheap, just like authentic dim sum should be. The only drawback is that the food court itself is always crowded and somewhat dark -- not the most inviting place to enjoy your shrimp dumplings or chicken feet. There are other food stands besides the dim sum joint, but none of them nearly as memorable.
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Grocery store: Deceptively small. Although the footprint of the store is enormous, the actual grocery section itself is somewhat cramped. This is because -- as with most Asian supermarkets -- there are other businesses near the front of the store that take up much more space than necessary. Jewerly stores, cell phone stores and the large food court seriously cut into the overall square footage. That said, the selection is excellent and you'll find mostly the same things as you'd find at Super H Mart.
Super H Mart. The pace is slower, and the store is somewhat less hectic, something to be credited to its far better layout and use of space. The prices between the two are relatively the same, but keep an eye out for specials (like the oysters that Robb Walsh spotted for 69 cents a pound at 99 Ranch Market), because when the stores run them, they're good.