Megamarket offers Asian-food favourites

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Shanghai Chinese Bistro, Kamei Royale Garden, Shabusen Yakiniku House–Vancouver has always had its share of second-floor Asian restaurants (and those are just off the top of my head), but now downtown is really looking up with the opening of the new H-Mart at the corner of Robson and Seymour streets. Considering the number of ESL schools in the 'hood, the location's a natural. For students from Seoul or Tokyo, this Asian supermarket must feel like a taste of home.

H-Mart is part of the U.S.–based HanAhReum chain, and if you haven't even heard of it yet, that may be because its street presence is minimal. You enter by escalator; at the bottom are free newspapers including the bilingual Genkei News, which tells you about PrimoPuel stuffed animals whose singing talent improves month by month until a year after purchase, “its repertoire grows to five songs.” At the top of the escalator you can buy Versace eyewear. A few steps further and you're in produce country, surrounded by Korean cucumbers, which are a paler green at one end than the other, bean sprouts almost levitating with crunch and freshness, and crushed garlic in kilo containers. I can't even get my head around a dish that would call for quantities that large. All I know is I'd elbow my way to the table if someone made it.

Spotting me writing down items in my notebook–Alaska-black-cod steaks and precooked halved Dungeness crabs on special, frozen monkfish, Japanese mayo–a muscular staff person asked me what I was up to. “Spying for Safeway,” I said; in fact, I told him the truth and he told me that Coquitlam has had an H-Mart for two-and-a-half years and that the chain is not geared solely to Asian shoppers. Clearly. Granted, you've got a “rice cake party” to go, fresh pine mushrooms, dozens of different salted fish, shabu shabu lamb, and an entire wall of dried seaweed. As for kimchi, if your nostrils flare at the dragon-breath fieriness of this classic Korean pickle, there is a cooler almost three metres long and all it contains is kimchi, including variants made from ponytail radish and dandelions. You've also got Schneider's packaged bacon centimetres away from yam noodles and miso paste, McCain's frozen strawberry shortcake keeping company with red-bean rice buns, and the bicultural temptations of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey and melon-flavoured ice bars. (Keep an eye on prices, though; some imported goods can run higher than what you see in other supermarkets.)

Let's not forget the food court, which is bright, with a view of the street, and large enough that if you work downtown it can keep you interestingly fed for a few days a week on a regular basis. Wang Ga Ma serves Korean food, all made behind the scenes, or at least behind the lineup of photos of dishes. Order spicy beef broth, pay (cash only), sit down, wait for your number to flash on a flat-panel screen, and return to the counter for a deep, black bowl brimming with ominously fiery red liquid. Bobbing around in the soup are creamy curds of cooked egg, cellophane noodles, long green onions, and long-fibred beef that's pleasantly chewy, not tough. A bowl of rice on the side, a scary quantity of kimchi–this is nose-running, eye-filling stuff that makes your lips puff up like a blowfish ($7.95). Other possibilities include barbecue beef on a hot cast-iron platter ($8.95) and “rice with fish raws”, which I'm too timid to try ($7.95).

Signage is not completely accurate. A corner identified as “health food” specializes in supplements; “Chinese food” should read “and Korean too” because E-Mo Noodle House sells both: sweet-and-sour pork, spicy noodles, pork cutlet, Korean-style sausage, prices in the $5.95-to-$9.95 range. The “sushi” sign correctly identifies Matoi Sushi, where staff wrap and roll all the usual Vancouver favourites at the usual prices, with a curry combo thrown in for fusion chasers.

The sign saying “Snack” is right on, although the “Chinese” stuffed pancakes are actually Korean and have brown sugar and peanuts inside. Little fish shapes of crispy dough popped out of moulds so precise they show every fin and scale are filled with red-bean jam (50 cents each) or pork and vegetables (75 cents) with a mustardy back note.

If that doesn't keep you well fed for a while, note that back out on the street, just around the corner, hammering sounds are coming from soon-to-open Next Noodle Bar, which promises “non-traditional” food and “endless Asian eating”.

H-MART 590 Robson Street. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.