Whether you’re trying to do some Asian cooking or simply stock your pantry, making a trip to the Tai Nam Market just off the Argyle El stop can save you a ton of money on your groceries. However, navigating the seemingly endless aisles and the iffy labeling can be a bit intimidating — but we’re here to help. Here’s what you can expect to find and what you should actually buy.
Dried goods take up a huge portion of Asian grocery stores. Dried selections range from the familiar umami-laden shiitake mushroom and scorching dried chiles to the lesser-known, but still delicious black wood ear fungus and tingly Szechuan peppercorns. A wide range of spice mixes are also available. One of the best is char siu mix, a sweet mix fortified by five spices and honey, typically used in barbecue. Mixes like the NOH char siu mix are a great way to quickly add a flavor kick to your meal. Try them in marinades or sprinkle them directly onto stir fry.
One of the best parts of the dry food selection is the dry noodle section. An enormous variety of Asian noodles are available and most cook fairly quickly thanks to their thinness. Plus, you can buy enough noodles to last you the quarter for only a few dollars.
The rice aisle especially is not to be missed. Unlike usual stores where rice comes in a relatively small bag, rice bags at Asian grocery stores like Tai Nam can weigh over 40 pounds. Of course, you wouldn’t want to carry that back to Evanston, so a 15-pound bag will probably do. Because so much rice is sold, the prices are very affordable: only about $1 per pound for delicious sushi-grade rice from Kokuho Rose.
Asian grocery stores often have a multitude of ready-to-eat and pre-cooked frozen options, and Tai Nam is no exception. In the freezers there are pot stickers, sticky rice balls and other traditional treats abound. Keep in mind that the quality of these vary greatly. Companies like O’Tasty that have many products on the shelf are often tastier and more reliable choices.
Tai Nam also has some bakery items as well as other snacks. Like the frozen section, this section has its ups and downs. If you’re looking for consistently excellent Asian pastries and other baked goods, try Chiu Quon bakery right next to the Argyle El stop.
However if you don’t want to make a separate trip to satisfy your sweet tooth, you can always explore some of the processed snacks aisles for many delicious snacks. Again, fancier packaging is typically a good indicator of a reliable product, but some very tasty treats such as sesame brittle are often packed in simple clear packaging. While treats that contain nuts are more likely to spoil on the shelf, other snacks like fruity jello cups are usually a safe and delicious buy.
The produce section is one of the best places to save money. Many staple vegetables are available for cheap, including onions, potatoes, shallots, carrots and many leafy greens. Many of these fresh greens will be pre-packed in plastic bags. Be careful when selecting produce from these bags, as some packed in the middle of the bunch may be bruised or rotten. Most of the time, you’ll be fine, but it never hurts to sift through and check. Occasionally, you may even find broccoli rabe or other more expensive greens for extremely low prices.
Although fresh meat and fish are offered, the prices usually aren’t low enough to risk low quality control. Use the money you save to buy better cuts at other grocery stores. However, if you are in the mood for specialty cuts such as tripe or even blood pudding, the ones available at the window are pretty reliable. The butchers know how to process and clean these rarer cuts to ensure they keep their strong flavors.
Fresh firm tofu and noodles can be found in cold cases near the produce. These noodles only need to be blanched before being dunked in broth or drenched in sauce. There are also whole chow fan noodle sheets that you can cut yourself, allowing you to determine the width of your noodles.
Sauces and condiments
Looking to stock up on some sriracha? There’s plenty of that to go around. While you’re at it, why not look at some of the other sauces and condiments? Many tasty curry pastes are sold in cans, and traditional condiments like soy sauce and black vinegar are also available.
If you’re up for a little culinary adventure, consider picking up some of the various bean pastes and preserved bean curd. Even if bean curd sounds a bit funky, chances are you’ve already had it. That miso paste found in miso soup at every sushi restaurant is just one kind of preserved bean curd. These bean based sauces are often some of the strongest and most flavorful concoctions in Asian cuisine. The Szechuan Hot Bean Sauce in blue cans can be stir fried with ground pork, garlic and ginger into a meaty concoction that is often used to flavor Szechuan style noodle broths.
Aside from sauces, there are also many pickles and other small condiments such as mysterious “pork sung.” This addictive dried condiment is made by stewing meat in sweet soy sauce until it falls apart, pulling the meat into thin fibers and finally wok drying the super flavorful pork until crispy. It makes a perfect topping for soups.
So next time you’re running low on groceries, ditch the trip to Whole Foods, adventure down to Tai Nam. Its low prices and bold flavors are sure to make you an Asian market devotee in no time.
Address: 4925 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640
Hours of Operation: Mon-Sun: 9am-8pm