Upon the arrival of the mega-Asian foods superstores, Assi and HMart, many smaller Chicagoland Korean grocery stores have had to do a mad scramble and reorganize their business strategy. In order to compete with the lower prices of the food items that are offered at these superstores, the smaller grocery stores have shifted their focus to catering, making pre-prepared soups and side dishes, and carrying a more limited stock of Korean food staples.
I’ve been avoiding Assi (pronounced “AH-shee”) and HMart, despite the great prices and unbelievably wide selection of foods. They’re out of my way and the route to get there is a nightmare. Not to mention, being there is like being at Costco—with lots of pushy people and long lines at the register, and too much temptation to blow the budget. But today I decided to check out Assi to see how it compares to HMart.
In theory, I only needed to get a big bag of rice, some corn tea, kimchee, tofu, and panchan (side dishes) to go with our dinners for the week. But I came out with a few cooking projects that might require me to “borrow” space in the in-laws’ garage fridge, just down the street.
The Food Court
Before shopping, I tried out the food court at Assi—had some pan-fried shrimp and vegetable dumplings, and jahm-pong (seafood noodles in a spicy broth)/jajang myun (noodles in black bean sauce) combo platter. (It was too much food for one person, but I had a hard time making up my mind on what I wanted to eat.) Of the three items, I enjoyed the dumplings the most. I loved the soft and crispy texture from the translucent dumpling skin, and the delicate flavors of the vegetables and shrimp, which were enhanced by the the soy-vinaigrette dipping sauce. Another customer seemed to enjoy the dumplings as much as I did—she went back to the counter to order seconds and thirds for her group. Next door to the Korean-Chinese food place was a shop that sold bubble tea, smoothies, and pop-in-soo (Korean shaved ice and ice cream sundae with azuki beans and fruit). I wish I could have had some room for dessert, but I guess that’s for next time.
But on to the shopping itself…
The produce section at Assi was quite impressive with its bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that you’d find in your traditional American grocery store, but with the added bonus of exotic and unusual items. The arrangement of the produce is nearly as painstakingly neat as Whole Foods, but HMart seems to have a slightly larger selection than Assi. A couple things bothered me about Assi’s produce section—I was dismayed to see peanuts being sold unshelled, and not in covered bins. I thought about the people with peanut allergies who might come into the store for an unsuspected surprise. It also bothered me to see some shoppers sampling produce that weren’t meant for sampling. (Maybe it’s a cultural thing to try-before-you-buy, but some people were treating the produce area like a smorgasborg.)
Assi has a smaller panchan (pre-prepared side dishes) section and kimchee section. But it makes it less overwhelming to have less to choose from—which is good for me as I often have a hard time deciding on panchan sometimes.
My mom tells me that Assi has fresher seafood than HMart. I’m undecided on that, as HMart seemed to have more fishes swimming in tanks vs. Assi (which may present the illusion of fresher fish perhaps?). I think I prefer Assi’s meat section because it seems to have a better balance between fresh and frozen meats. HMart’s meat section just felt like overkill.
Assi isn’t as large as HMart, and it carries less variety in order to sell more of its own brand. Also, the aisles at Assi are narrower, which give it a more cramped feeling. (This is where they need to take lessons from HMart, which has wider aisles!) However, Assi seems to have a bigger than expected American foods section, which helps families eliminate an extra trip to an American grocery store for their other staples.
Another difference between Assi and HMart is that Assi extends itself better to other Asian groups like the Chinese and Philipinos vs. HMart, which seems more Korean-centric. I was impressed to see a separate section of the store for Chinese food items. Other differences: HMart has a section of its store that sells freshly-made tofu, but Assi just has the prepackaged stuff. HMart also has a wider range of ramen, noodles, and rice than Assi, and a bigger liquor section, too.
Both stores have major traffic jams at the register, but Assi seems worse. However, I do have to give props to Assi’s cashiers for being a little more accurate and detail-oriented than HMart, and for the fact that they even carried on the tradition of giving a little thank-you gift that a lot of small Korean grocery stores do (or used to, before the mega-superstores came around).
Final assessment? I think I’ll stick to my nearby Korean grocery store, Dundee Market, for quick and basic Korean grocery shopping, and save Assi and HMart for “food field trips” when I have to do major cooking, or when I have craving for tasty dumplings, pop-in-soo, or freshly made rice cakes. (There’s a fantastic rice cake place at HMart, which alone is worth a visit). However, when Christmas comes, I think I’ll have to pay a visit to both Assi and HMart for different items.
Uh-oh, I’ve become like my mother, who has to go to at least 6-8 grocery stores to get all her food items!