Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Sure, you can find masa flour in Kroger. Sriracha, sushi rice, sesame oil and frozen samosas, too. Conventional grocery stores, particularly in the Heights, Hillcrest, midtown and West Little Rock, seem to be expanding their multicultural offerings every time we turn around. But for cooks looking to dig deeper in a foreign cuisine, it's hard to beat Central Arkansas's ever-expanding number of ethnic groceries.
For one, they're almost always cheaper. Produce, beer, butchered meat — a careful shopper can find massive bargains. And two, obviously, the selection is far deeper than what you'd find at conventional groceries. So deep that there's a tendency to fetishize the experience of browsing so many mysterious goods ("Look, a bag of dried octopus!"). Just don't be obnoxious. Similarly, while all these stores welcome customers of all persuasions and most have someone in their employ who speaks English, don't go in looking for a tour guide. Instead, use what follows as a road map and explore, sample and come back and do it all over again.
Sam's Oriental Where Little Rock's growing East Asian community does its shopping. Particularly on Saturday, when the store gets in new stock from Dallas, you'll see families pushing carts filled with gallon jars of bright kim chi (made in-house), five-pound bags of rice and enough other sundries to last them through the week. Redolent of fish, always bustling with loud conversation and movement (stocking seems to be perpetual process here) and almost stiflingly packed, Sam's is perhaps the farthest grocery you'll find from, say, Kroger. It's easy to get anthropological shopping here, cataloging every new dried snow fungus, frozen duckling, young green jackfuit juice or other curio you come across. But you'll easily be able to find the essentials. From a Western perspective at least, Sam's has the staples from the major East and Southeast Asian countries covered, with dozens of varieties of noodles and rice, bulk garlic and ginger root, fresh tofu, miso, tom yum paste, half an aisle of tea and giant bottles of Sriracha, Hoisin, fish and soy sauce. Plus, a wide supply of Asian fruits of vegetables and, oddly, cheap Cafe Du Monde brand coffee. 3704 S. University. No alcohol, cash and check only. 501-562-2720. 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.
Asian Mart Sue Khoo, the Taiwanese owner of Unique Furniture in Jacksonville, opened this grocery in the Broadmoor Shopping Center in 2009 and vowed to offer more stock, in a bigger space and at better prices than Sam's Oriental, just a few blocks south. She's succeeded in at least one respect: Asian Mart is large, maybe twice the size Sam's. Still, in terms of stock, it has much room to grow before it fills its space to capacity. A planned fast-food-style Asian/American restaurant has yet to open, leaving only a small produce offering to fill one of the store's two large sections. But among its shelves, you'll find a nice selection of noodles, rice, sauces and canned goods from China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam (but little to nothing from Japan and Korea), including every imaginable kind of frozen dumpling and savory Asian pastry imaginable. Also in a frozen case: durian, the spiky, watermelon-sized Southeast Asian fruit that looks like an evil foot soldier from Super Mario Bros. 3002 S. University Ave. No alcohol, CC. 501-562-4087. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat., 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
Mt. Fuji Japanese Food and Gift Shop A good selection of noodles, rice, snacks and sweets at the companion store in the basement of the Breckenridge sushi standby. Frozen and fresh fish, too; plus, they'll cut any fish available at the sushi bar to go. 10301 N. Rodney Parham Road. No alcohol, CC. 501-227-6498.11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.