WHEN I travel, I go to supermarkets. Unlike most touring shoppers, I never pause at store windows displaying jewelry and haute couture. But whether I'm in Aix or Antwerp New Orleans or Naples, I make a beeline for the local grocery store to peruse aisles of preserves, inhale the scent of coffee and pick up toothpaste sporting foreign labels.
More than one pal at home has benefited from my wanderings, gifted with a tub of New Zealand clover honey or a pound of chicory-laced coffee from Rouses on Royal Street. I've found that those kinds of souvenirs are always welcome.
A supermarket is also a great place to meet locals and spark conversation, to see people doing what I love to do — shopping for food to cook at home. Then there are the unfamiliar ingredients to puzzle over, as I spy on other shoppers and try to imagine what they plan to do with those chicken feet or tubes of fish paste.
That exotic experience is closer to home than you might think. The Asian markets on Washington Avenue and Chinatown are a case in point, treasure troves of live frogs and hanging lacquered ducks, not to mention frozen dim sum and all that exotic produce.
Recently, I discovered another supermarket immersion experience that drenched me in a far-flung culture, no airplane ticket required. A trip to NetCost Market on Bustleton Avenue is the quickest way to get to Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Uzbekistan and other parts of Slavic Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Serving the considerable Russian population in Northeast Philadelphia's Somerton neighborhood — an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Russian speakers, according to the Russian portal rususa.com— NetCost opened here in 2004 in a former Thriftway. One of six stores — the others are in Brooklyn and Staten Island, N.Y. — NetCost is a 25,000-square-foot beauty, a gorgeous, sparkling-clean store that dishes up a cultural experience and fantastic products all on one plate.
Walk inside and it's immediately apparent that you're not at the local Acme. The music is the first tipoff, a soundtrack of Russian pop hits that may, or may not, be Muzak versions of Eastern Euro top-40 tunes. I couldn't tell. The store is beautifully merchandized, with colorful displays of produce and English signage to help us non-Cyrillic readers.
Although most of his customers are Russian and Eastern European, senior buyer and co-owner Andre Malkin said he does see some "regular" customers in the store, local non-Russians whose neighbors may shop there or who heard of it some other way. (I found out about the store through Karen Garbeil, an adventurous foodie and one of my friends at the Mill Creek dog park.) Malkin, who emigrated here from Uzbekistan 18 years ago, said he could always tell when it's a shopper's first time at the store. "They kind of look a little scared," he said. "They come here first like it's a zoo, to see what is going on. Then little by little, they feel comfortable."
The first time I shopped at NetCost, I did find a bit of a language barrier and made it my business to speak slowly and clearly at the many staffed counters proffering everything from bread to smoked fish. I also detected an aura of melancholia in some of the staff that was certainly different from the ever-smiling American style of customer service, but I liked it. I associated that sighing malaise with a different culture, the same one responsible for the serious likes of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Can you imagine Dr. Zhivago saying, "Have a nice day"? Still, Malkin said that his management team is working with staff to improve customer service, and is beefing up English-language skills for all employees.
Ileana Andruchovici shops at Bell's Market, another Russian supermarket on Bustleton Avenue, to find specialty ingredients she needs to re-create dishes from her native Romania. But Andruchovici, a neighbor in Belmont Hills, also finds great deals on all kinds of imported foods, from French feta to Russian salami to Turkish sunflower seeds. "The prices are so good — the feta I love is $7.99 a pound, and it's twice that at other stores."
While Malkin is committed to carrying specialty goods, he also wants shoppers to get the familiar brands and staples that they need. "We opened because people used to have to go to one store for produce, one for sausages, one for cereal and milk. We try to carry everything," he said. A large display of familiar breakfast-cereal brands, on special for $2.99, was an example. I found prices to be highly competitive at NetCost. A few examples from one recent order included: bananas for 59 cents a pound; yellow, red and orange peppers, $1.79 a pound; cremini mushrooms, $2.99 a pound; and dark multigrain bread, $3.49.
Miles of aisles
Need more reasons to take a trip to Russia via Bustleton Avenue?
Juiced-up: The juice aisle is a thing of beauty, offering all kinds of fruit and vegetable juices from Belgium, Armenia, South Africa and Ukraine, in those easy-to-store skinny cartons I adore. I bought a cranberry and wild-strawberry juice from Russia ($2.79) that is perfection with vodka and lime.
Fun with produce: Not only are the fruits and vegetables fresh looking and artfully displayed — no ratty lettuce in sight — but there are unusual items like raw almonds still in their fuzzy green pods, and green apricots.
Ready to feast: Like many markets, NetCost has an in-house chef and a full case of prepared foods. Here you can get all kinds of ethnic goodies such as pickled herring, potato pancakes, grain salads and stewed meat dishes. You'll also find other types of cuisine, like Korean-style seaweed salad and Japanese Kani salad made with fish paste.
More bread please: NetCost imports all kinds of par-baked dark bread from Germany and Eastern Europe that it finishes off in-house.
Wonderful crusty ryes, pumpernickels, multigrain with sunflower seeds — you'll go crazy. The bakery also sells cookies that look like they came out of a babushka's oven.
Caviar by the egg: If you love the feel of briny eggs popping in your mouth but rarely treat yourself to the expensive snack, then you'll love the caviar bar at NetCost. Situated in the back of the store — and with a separate register to discourage hungry shoppers from eating the food before checking out — the staffed caviar bar has all kinds of domestic caviar, shiny pearls of black, gray and red ranging in price from $2.49 a jar to $229 a pound, available in any amount.
You can even taste the less expensive eggs before you buy. Thick sour cream and blinis are also for sale. All you need to provide is the champagne.
And speaking of fish: A lover of smoked fish will think he's died and gone to heaven here. There are all kinds, cold and hot smoked, including sliced, hot-smoked sea bass that was absolutely divine.
Kielbasa everyone? Sausages of every girth live here, from dried Polish kabanosy ($4.69 a pound) to multiple kinds of kielbasa and acres of dried salamis and ham and roast pork and beef. The deli case will have you drooling.
Meat weird and wonderful: Pre-marinated baby spare ribs ($5.99 a pound) to chicken feet ($1.99) to a whole frozen suckling pig and even a pig head, there's a lot to digest in the meat department besides the usual chicken, steak and pork roasts. Don't even get me started on the various organ meats — liver, brain, tongue, heart and more.
Teas from around the world: I'm not a tea drinker, but I still was wowed by the aisle devoted to teas.
This is a great place to buy a gift for your favorite tea lover.
Chocolate: A wander down the chocolate aisle was a trip through a cocoa dream, with imported European truffles, light and dark chocolate-covered fruits, chocolates filled with liquor. The smell was intoxicating. It doesn't hurt that there's a little chocolate-scent dispenser spraying the heady aroma above the aisle every minute or so.
"We are always going to trade shows and trying new things," said Malkin.
What can I say? NetCost is cool.
NetCost Market, 11701 Bustleton Ave., 267-672-2500, netcostmarket.com.