Some of us are born with an itch in our shoes, an innate need to travel out of reach of our normal lives and experience something new. But when you’ve been far from home for a long time, there is nothing more comforting than stopping in a market and seeing a label in your own language. Food is the locus where our wanderlust clashes with our sense of comfort and of home.
Tucson’s diverse immigrant population has sprouted many choice ethnic markets around town, which have simultaneously become hubs for native Tucsonans to sample something new, and for expats to find comfort in the familiar. Some of them are well known and established: Lee Lee International Supermarket has been serving the northwest side for more than 20 years, while Grantstone Supermarket has proffered Asian goods in Balboa Heights for more than 30. The amazing Mexican markets around town deserve a roundup of their own. But the five on this list are centrally located gems you may not have visited yet—and should soon on your next culinary adventure.
627 S. Vine Ave. · 520.792.3173 · romaimports.com · Year opened: 1984
The façade of Roma Imports is so boldly decorated that you’ll be surprised you missed it. Tucked away among unassuming warehouses on South Vine Street, the tricolored awning calls out the colors of the Italian flag.
Stepping inside, it’s immediately apparent that this is the kind of place that knows the importance of proper ingredients. Like the necessity of the exact pasta shape to pair with a Bolognese versus a marinara sauce, there’s a luxury of specificity here that takes precedence over the functionality of making-do. It’s comforting to be so precise. Even the names—the “little thimble” pasta ditali and “little ears” of orichiette piccoli—sound sweetly domestic.
Roma is as much an echo of Italy as it is a reflection of Tucsonans. “I think that when you run a little family business, the customers become like part of the family or like friends,” says Lilian Spieth, who took over the business from a Sicilian family 15 years ago. Her children went off to college, she explains, and she needed something to do, so she bought Roma even though she didn’t have any prior experience in the industry. Regardless, she says, “it was quite easy because my philosophy was to listen to what the customers wanted, and if five people said I should bring in an item, I did. The more people expressed what they would like us to do, it was easy to grow.”
Since taking it over, the market has expanded into a specialty deli with imported bresaola and homemade sausage, a wall of freezer cases full of lasagna and cacciatore made in-house, and a small café affectionately nicknamed “La Taverna.” Some customers come in to load up coolers with eggplant parmesan; some sit at a small diner table to enjoy a sandwich of porchetta (slow-roasted pork shoulder, a specialty at Roma). Other food nationalities show up alongside the Italian fare: there’s a selection of Greek, Hungarian, and German dishes, among others—a tour of customers’ interests added over time.
“Over the years we have seen customers return, and children being born, and customers come in with children who are now in college, and it’s always wonderful to see the new people who come in and the old time customers who bring their friends in, showing their friends and family all the things we are doing here. It’s definitely the people who make the business what it is.”
2817 N. Country Club Road · 520.323.6808 · Year opened: 1987
“I think everything is changing these days,” says Khalifa Solieman, the owner of Caravan Mideastern Foods, which occupies a narrow storefront on Country Club just north of Glenn. “You cannot stay on one thing. The market changes; people change. It affects all kinds of things. You need to keep continuing some things and see what the customers need. It’s happened many times with Somalis, Iraqis, Russians, Sudanese; we get new groups,” as Tucson welcomes the diasporas, he says. And with each new ethnic group that lands here, Solieman has a new need to fill, a new cultural shade to add to Caravan’s shelves, which are so tightly packed they remind me of what caravan loads on the Spice Trade might have looked like. Teas crowd around the corners of one room while coffee takes a wall. A huge array of bulk spices includes whole cardamom pods and mango spice, lending a dark sweetness to the air in the shop. A dozen olive oils are stacked around a table, while an olive bar takes up a long wall in every shade of green to black, bordered by dried fruits. Nudging each other on display are products from Africa, India, South America, everywhere. From these items it’s possible to pluck out a meal from a specific region, or create a truly American dish from elements around the world.
My favorite start: a Bulgarian feta whose saltiness plays nicely with tart dried cherries. Then pick up ground lamb and eggplant to stuff grape leaves. Spiced rice can be made in any flavor with the huge array of bulk spices along one wall. Mix cocktails with orange blossom and rose water, or finish a meal with a spicy masala chai. Colorful candy-coated chickpeas come in a pastel palette of shades to fix a sweet tooth. A decadent surprise hides among the jams: a jar of peanuts, walnuts and hazelnuts packed together in honey.
But soon you won’t have to make your own dishes; Solieman plans to add a Middle Eastern restaurant to the mix, with kebabs, shawarma, and the like. “You shop here, you eat here,” he says, “and it’s fantastic.”
4270 E. Pima St. · 520.441.6199 · sandyiorientalmarket.com · Year opened: 1998
Tucked on the corner of Pima and Columbus, the red awning of Sandyi Market is the only thing to call attention in this quiet neighborhood. But inside, it’s a small riot of packages in a flurry of Japanese and Korean writing. Standing sentinel by the door of Sandyi Oriental Market is a case of cherished Melona bars—frozen honeydew treats that lure in transplanted Koreans and cultural neophytes alike.
Owner Yesuk So opened this small market more than 16 years ago, when she moved from New York to Tucson for her kids’ schooling. “At that time it was big business,” she says of the diverse Asian community who welcomed this little market in the center of town. “But in the last six years, everyone has moved away.” Now her clientele is more American than immigrant, but her store still reflects the desires of someone living far from home. In addition to the extraordinary—whole shelving units of dried seaweed in different variations; lychee and jackfruits canned in syrup—there’s also a touch of the very ordinary, like pot scrubbers in Japanese labels and strainers for the kitchen sink.
A college student might be satisfied with the gallery of quick ramen flavors to choose from, but for an adventurous foodie the possibilities are endless. Get a proper rice cooker here, and put on to steam some good sticky rice, the kind that mounds into snowballs when you scoop it out. Quick frozen dumplings make an excellent appetizer with a little plum wine or quality sake, or an endless list of teas that you could serve iced, boba-style in the summer. For the main fare, a mixed grill of ocean meats lines the freezer cases, carefully but unceremoniously wrapped on Styrofoam trays. Choose from any number of fishes—skate, pomfret, croaker—to go with delicate squid, octopus, and steamed mussels. Grab a daikon radish, vegetables of choice, and kimchi to go on the side. And for dessert, Sandyi has all the quirky Japanese staples: mochi in multiple colors, red and green bean cakes, and slightly savory ice creams in black sesame and green tea flavors.
Or perhaps you’ll bypass these exotics for the Spam luncheon loaf. It’s there, on a top shelf next to more respectable canned meats. And even in Japanese, it still looks the same.
4500 E. Speedway Blvd., Ste. 36 · 520.512.0206 · europeanmarketandeli.com · Year opened: 1999
In the bustle of traffic on Speedway, it might be easy to miss European Market in the reddish-orange business park east of Columbus, but it’s worth visiting for the Slavic charcuterie board alone. With a case each of salamis and cheeses, and half the market overtaken by dark bottles and Russian labels, this is the perfect stop for an elegant and high-spirited party. The selection of so many little luxuries here has been primarily driven by remembrance: Olga Chausovskaya, who owns the market with her husband, Alex, explains that especially around the holidays, “People are always looking for some product to remember from grandma or from friends; they come in with a name and we have to find it, and they are always happy.”
The market is filled with names that, though unfamiliar to many, are home for others: kielbasa sausage, pierogi dumplings, kolbasi. The Chausovskayas came from Ukraine in 1989, when Jewish persecution was high. Since then, they’ve been building back pieces of what they and so many others had lost in their home countries. Clustered along a narrow hallway stretching to the back of the store are wall cases of trinkets and tchotchkes, small wooden nesting dolls in painted red dresses, miniature St. Petersburg cathedrals and magnets—so many bright colors. Foil-wrapped chocolates and candies fill one rack; jars of preserves and pickles line the wall. The list of found products comes from not just Ukraine and Poland but also many parts of Europe: Germany, Romania, Hungary, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Greece; it goes on and on.
Experiment with a plate of everything: surround a little dish of caviar with a selection of salami, smoked kielbasa, kishkin, and paté, with a little pickled fish in oil. Spread soft sheep’s milk bryndza on a poppy seed roll, or choose a more familiar sweet farmer’s cheese with Russian marmalade. For an aperitif, you may need the Chausovskayas’ help deciphering the extensive collection of unique brews and spirits, but the semisweet Ukrainian wines, cognac, strong beers and Polish potato vodkas are not to be missed.
2537 N. Stone Ave. · 520.303.3525 · Year opened: 2013
Walking into Yogi’s, one is immediately greeted by order and color. Against one wall, the gold trim on bright saris glimmers on a rack while locally handmade Nepalese jewelry shines in iridescent colors. From there, black racks of bright boxes and jars extend several rows back, with “all that goes in Indian cooking,” explains Satye Bhati, who opened Yogi’s in 2013. The selection ranges from the convenient—bags of Indian snack foods, masala mixes, and minute rices—to the obscure, as a dozen distinctive kinds of flour lie in rows from barley to buckwheat, jawar to ragi, jockeying for space with bulk spices and noodles.
Bhati calls attention to the produce case, where there are some very hard-to-find staples, like fenugreek, a bittersweet leafy green that lends a quintessential Indian flavor of smoky dark caramel made tangy by a squeeze of lemon. Or karela and parval: bitter gourd and pointed gourd, respectively, which can be prepared like eggplant, sliced, salted to draw the water out, then squeezed and pan-roasted. And there are lovely beans: gawar and valor long beans, both of which are crunchier than green beans but made tender from simmering in turmeric, coriander, and red chili.
“I thought there was a need for something like this in Tucson,” says Satye Bhati. He opened Yogi’s Indian Cafe & Market “to fulfill that need, not just with the market but also with the café and street food. In the Indian community, they already know what that kind of food is, so they’re familiar with it and very excited about it.”
With a menu of samosas, curries, paneer, and tikka masala, there is much to be excited about. Crowd pleasers among the street foods include pani pooris, “a kind of puff ball,” Bhati explains, with “spicy water, black chickpeas and spiced potatoes, and you pop the whole thing in to your mouth at one time,” and momos, a tender dumpling made in the Himalayan region of India and Nepal dipped in spicy tomato relish. A vegan menu features okra, cauliflower, potatoes, and lentils, while other dishes star chicken and lamb. And to drink: spiced chai, mango-yogurt shakes, Indian coffee, and Thumbs Up. The cafe is simple and clean, without fanfare, but it’s the cooking that shines. ✜
Emily Gindlesparger traded forested Southern Illinois for the mountains of Tucson, where she teaches yoga and writes about adventures on bicycles, cliff sides, and wine trails.