99 Ranch is our local Asian mega grocery store. It has food from all over Asia (though primarily China) and a bit from the rest of the world too. My first experience with 99 Ranch was actually in San Diego with my friend Ava (also my first experience with sundubu as well), I believe. I was hooked.
I grew up in rural California, which was not winning any records for cultural diversity. My parents, however, did the best the could to expose me to the cuisines of the world in their limited capacity (considering neither of them had been out of the U.S. until a few years ago, to the best of my knowledge). We had a few “oriental” markets owned by local Hmong families (so grateful for their businesses!), but what they carried was somewhat limited. They were always so kind to my mom when she and I went in when I was young and she would buy a whole box of Mama Tom Yum Instant Ramen. I remember, as a little kid, looking at things with awe and wondering what you did with them. I guess my mom was lucky that I didn’t know as much as I do now, otherwise I might have done that annoying kid-demanding-parent-buy-desired-item thing!
For some perspective, one of the signature Humboldt places for a while was a lumberjack style eatery, The Samoa Cookhouse, where you could choose from various meats (some fried) with American sides. We’re talking meat and potatoes, maybe some beans, maybe some coleslaw. Exposure to authentic world cuisines was primarily limited to Mexican, Italian and some (largely Americanized) Japanese cuisine, though we did have one decent Thai place for a while. We of course had access to plenty of Americanized Chinese cuisine (not terribly authentic), which lead to some shockers when I actually lived in China for two months. Things have a bit changed since then, as where I grew up now has Cambodian and Vietnamese establishments as well. Restaurant diversity is still obviously well behind the Bay Area, especially with the economy being somewhat depressed up there due to what seems to be an exodus of jobs. It is nice to see, however, that restaurants serving cuisines not previously seen there are actually succeeding, and in some cases, flourishing.
That gives you a bit of a picture, though, of where I was at mentally when I stepped into the San Diego 99 Ranch. I was amazed. The smell was off-putting. Aisles and aisles of stuff I could never dream of having in rural California. Whole new parts of my palette that I never knew existed. 99 Ranch was a gateway to a whole new world. To this day, though, I’m never sure if the correct way to refer to it is “99 Ranch” or “Ranch 99,” and I am not even sure where that somewhat bizarre name came from.
My relationship with 99 Ranch has changed a bit since I moved to the South Bay and my appreciation of various cuisines of the world has (hopefully) a bit more finesse. However, it is definitely still a go-to, one-stop-shop to stock up on Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cooking stuff and to find some fun things to play with that I have never used before. I don’t go there that often, because parking is usually a chore and it is often crowded, but I tend to make a big trip every 3 months or so for sauces and the like. (I can get a lot of Chinese veggies at the farmer’s market for cheaper anyway.)
Today I went for a trip to pick up things for my mom. Yes, my mom is hooked on 99 Ranch now too, so any time I go up to visit I call her up and ask her for her orders. I feel like some sort of weird importer, because where I grew up still doesn’t have a lot of the things you can find at 99 Ranch. They have also moved to an even smaller town, so the local markets are not so easy to access, which is unfortunate. So ironically, I am importing to within California.
Now I am used to the smells (they smell homey), the crowdedness (just make your way through and try not to whack anyone), and the parking (go at an off hour if you can). I happily snatched up a bag of mangosteens and some of that Mama Tom Yum Flavored Instant Ramen along with what my mom had requested (and some turnip cake for her too, even though she didn’t request it, because I know she likes it).
I still enjoy shopping at 99 Ranch or any Asian market (most in San Jose seem to cater to folks with a wide variety of backgrounds and culinary interests) and am always discovering new things. I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like had I not been to 99 Ranch. I wonder if I would be less culinarily adventurous…have less culinary perspective…have not gone to China? Would I have been involved in a program focused on how to best serve children of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in speech therapy? There is no way to know, obviously, but it is definitely funny to ponder how one grocery store could have had such a big impact on how I see the world.