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.
INDIAN AND MIDDLE EASTERN
Asian Groceries Easily one the largest ethnic groceries in Central Arkansas, this 6,000-square-foot megamart used to be called the Indian Grocery Store. When it moved — from the top of the hill at the Ashley Square Shopping Center to near the bottom — and more than tripled its floor space, a more encompassing name must've seemed appropriate. But though the store's stock is impressive, its focus remains largely on food from India and the Mediterranean countries: feed sacks of basmati rice, a dizzying amount of dal, exotic varieties of flour and spices, a vast selection of curries, chutneys and mixes and, in a freezer case that spans one long wall, every kind of flatbread and samosa you'd ever want. Every Tuesday and Friday, the store gets in fresh vegetables, including quite a few that are otherwise hard to find, like betel leaf, coconut, dosakai cucumber, kantola, lychee and snake gourd. There's Marmite, too, for Anglophiles. A vegetarian cafe in the back of the store is open 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sun. 9112 N. Rodney Parham. No alcohol, CC. 501-221-9977. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Indian Grocers A spotlessly clean Indian and Middle Eastern grocery, with halal meats, including beef, chicken, goat and lamb, available. Significantly smaller than its main competitor, Asian Groceries, but similarly stocked and competitively priced. Two key differences: Indian Grocers offers fewer fresh vegetables, but does sell Indian beer. 11121 N. Rodney Parham. Beer, CC. 501-227-8203. 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.
Layla'sThis Mediterranean restaurant and pizzeria operates a halal butcher shop that adjoins the dining room with beef, chicken, goat and lamb options. 9501 N. Rodney Parham Road. No alcohol, CC. 501-227-7272. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.
Middle Eastern Cuisine You'll find tahini, dates, beans and more at the small storefront attached to this reliable River Market lunch spot. 400 President Clinton Ave. No alcohol, CC. 501-372-1662. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
La Regional The theme here is one-stop shopping. Grab the essentials from the grocery: queso blanco from the dairy case; a big bottle of La Valentina hot sauce; a handful of peppers from the bulk bin (take your pick: chile puya, guajillo, ancho, chipotle, arbol, pasilla mulato, morita, pequin); cheap avocados and key limes from the ample produce section; a pack of Brenda's Tortillas, made fresh daily on 65th Street. Then amble a few feet to the butcher counter where you can get as freaky as you want to — there's everything from cabeza (cow head meat) to camarones (shrimp) — and for cheap. Next, grab a tray and tongs and, without thinking too hard, pile on as many different flaky, puffy, sugary, fruit-filled pastries and cookies as you can; they'll likely cost you less than $5. Finally, because grocery shopping always inspires hunger, head to the adjacent restaurant, where you'll find some of the finest tacos and burritos around. Make sure you get an agua fresca — choose between papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe, Jamaica, tamarind, horchata. It's like the nectar of the gods. With outlets in Southwest Little Rock and on Pike Avenue in North Little Rock. 7414 Baseline Road, 501-565-4440; 2630 Pike Ave., NLR, 501-246-4163. No alcohol, CC. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Mercado San JosePerhaps La Regional's closest competitor, with the same lively atmosphere and all-in-one appeal. We're partial to the attached restaurant's massive carne tortas — thick with steak, avocado, refried beans, lettuce, tomato, cream and cheese — and its baked goods, generally. With a large meat counter (with three-foot-long fried pig skin piled on top) and a special cake case. 7411 Geyer Springs Road. Beer, CC. 501-565-4246. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Supermercado Sin Fronteras One of the newest and largest Mexican groceries, Sin Fronteras operates like conventional supermarket, with buffed floors, neat aisles and a barcode scanner. What it lacks in color, it makes up with vast stock of dried and canned goods, an attractive meat counter that spans one end of the store and maybe the largest vegetable section among area Mexican groceries, where you'll find the likes of nopal (cactus pads), chayote squash (mirlitons to South Louisianans), fava beans and long cuts of raw sugar cane. A full-scale bakery is next door. 4918 Baseline Road. Beer, CC. 501-562-4206. 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Guadalajara A popular North Little Rock hangout, with perhaps our favorite authentic Mexican restaurant on the north side of the river taking up most of the building's room. Next door — but still attached — is a small grocery, with bulk peppers and beans; a modest vegetable section; a compact butcher case and a refrigerated cabinet of cheap Mexican beer, with all the standard options. 3811 Camp Robinson. Beer, CC. 501-753-9991. 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Las Delicias Super Mercado Maybe the oldest mercado in Central Arkansas — and certainly the best named one — Las Delicias offers the standard fare in a small space, without much of a meat selection. In the back of the store, you'll find a handful of benches. Ring the bell to order tacos, tamales, burritos and such. 3401 Pike Ave., NLR. No alcohol, CC. 501-812-4876. 8 a.m.-9 a.m. daily.
La Perla A friendly neighborhood market with a small, but nice vegetable selection, a narrow bakery case, a rack of luchador DVDs and other basics. 9501 N. Rodney Parham. No alcohol, CC, 501-228-2006. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
La Potosina A small Southwest Little Rock market with a sizeable butcher counter, basic Mexican foodstuffs and assorted Western wear. 5412 Baseline Road. 501-565-1238. 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. No alcohol, CC.
Del Campo A La Ciudad A medium-sized warehouse at the intersection of S. University and 65th owned by the same people behind Taqueria Karina and La Guadalupana, with beans and rice and other haphazardly arranged goods available in bulk. There's a small taqueria attached, too. 6500 S. University Ave. No alcohol, CC. 501-562-1281, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat.