There’s a certain few friends I absolutely know will say yes when I ask them if they want to meet me for lunch at the food court inside the Asian Market on 78th and Dodge Streets.
That’s how I found myself facing down a space — and a menu — much larger than I intended on tackling in the hour we had together.
In fact, the Asian Market food court is selling Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Tiwanese — and those are just the cuisines I made note of.
Take it from me: It’s going to take a lot more than two lunch hour visits to find the hidden gems on this menu, of which I am positive exist.
The Asian market on 78th and Cass has long been an enjoyable stop for me whenever I’m making homemade broth, am out of Sichuan peppercorns or need fresh lemongrass. In spring 2022, the market expanded, adding a new wing to the north for its section of kitchen supplies, plates, bowls and silverware, and expanding the southeast corner into a full service kitchen with a walk-up window, a decent sized dining room and several walk up counters to take prepared food to go. There’s also a boba tea counter.
Both my friend and I were surprised by the sheer size of the food court: More than just a couple tables and so many choices on the menu, including a full menu of hot dishes, a large shelf of baked goods and a sizable selection of takeaway sushi.
The first day, we stuck to the hot menu items: an order of pork dumplings, dan dan noodles, twice cooked pork and my friend’s last minute add on: a Korean cheese dog.
“Well, that’s three dollars worth of fun,” my friend said upon arrival of that dog, which we both thought would include a hot dog but was actually a log of hot, molten cheese inside a slightly sweet fried shell, which gave us both a hint of glazed doughnut. It comes served with a side of ketchup, though neither of us used it.
Our two entrees were good enough: An order of dan dan noodles came with a thick peanut sauce that needed mixing in, and though I love steamed bok choy, the two large pieces we got were slightly hard to eat. And twice cooked pork, though a touch fatty, had plenty of flavor, loaded with sichuan peppercorns, peppers and vegetables. It’s served with hot steamed rice.
Hot pork dumplings are hard to resist, and these are good — flavorful filling, wrappers that seem homemade — served with a tangy soy sauce for dipping. Dumplings here are closer to potstickers than soup dumplings, something worth noting.
Another day, I went back alone to check out the bakery and sushi counters.
There’s a wide array of sushi rolls, most heavily sauced, and I went for the chef’s special that day — the one with the least mayo. I also got kimbap, a Korean dish made from cooked rice, vegetables, fish, and meat rolled in gim — dried sheets of seaweed — and served in bite-sized slices.
I’m forever ruined when it comes to any pre-packaged sushi — blame Yoshitomo’s David Utterback — but the fish, for what it is, seems fresh, and the rolls are well-composed, with simple flavors that you’ve had before. Kimbap is a bit different from sushi: the rice is flavored with sesame oil, and the pickled vegetables lend a different flavor and texture. I liked it enough to want to try it again in the future.
The bakery counter, I think, gives the nearby Tous les Jours a run for its money: the selection is similar, and the prices are good. And though the selection experience as a whole is less posh than at the French bakery, the results are just as good. I loved a taro roll, with a swirl of burgundy at its top and a sweet, starchy filling made with the Asian root vegetable.
Also great: A loaf of buttery brioche studded with raisins and cut into thick slices that makes an absolutely killer slice of toast for your at-home weekend brunch. The last thing I tried was some unusual, hand cut, super crunchy and slightly sweet sesame crackers. My better half was not much of a fan, but I think they’re pretty great alongside a hot cup of coffee or tea.
Was I wowed by any one dish I tried during my visits? Outside of baked goods, no. But the thrill of the hunt — the hunt for that one hidden gem of a dish — will keep me going back for more.