Working almost directly above a Trader Joe’s has changed my life. Although SF Weekly and SF Examiner staffers physically have to leave the building and walk around the block to fill our baskets with riced cauliflower and Joe-Joe’s, I haven’t been without an emergency stash of unsulfured dried mango slices in months. (I might get to eat out a lot, but I’m still a brokeass.)
You can’t live on Trader Joe’s alone, though — or even on Trader Giotto. Four BART stops and a manageable walk from SF Weekly’s offices is Manila Oriental Market, a pan-Asian wonderland of incredible bounty. There, at the intersection of Mission and Trumbull streets in the Excelsior, you can walk out with an extraordinary variety of dried ramen and some relatively obscure types of Pocky you’d never find at Walgreen’s. (Cookies & Cream!) Or, if you prefer, get some of the Thai version of Pocky, Pejoy, manufactured by the same company that produces those addicting Tomato Pretz.
In spite of the name, Manila’s products are at best plurality-Filipino and majority-Asian. You can also get Marock sardines in tomato sauce (from Morocco) or Beach Cliff herring steaks in soybean oil with hot green chilies (a Canadian subsidiary of Bumble Bee). Spread on a toasted baguette, either makes a great lunch, washed down with a can of sweetened, slightly vegetal pennywort juice. My hometown has had a branch of the Korean-American grocery chain H-Mart since I graduated from college, but it took me until a recent foray to Manila to find a tin of roasted eel with the same sweetness and creamy-umami appeal.
If you didn’t grow up with bags of shrimp chips or cans of giant top shellfish, it’s important not to think you’ve made some kind of culinary first contact; people have been eating these products for decades or more. Marveling at what’s exotic to you should always come in second to appreciating it on its own terms, too. But exploring these aisles is a delight, and the fresh produce and seafood sections have a broader variety than most neighborhood shops outside Chinatown.
Perhaps second only to the inexplicably complicated dual-level parking gauntlet at the Ninth-and-Bryant Trader Joe’s, Manila’s lot is an exercise in patience. It’s just too small to accommodate demand, and the individual spaces are angled weirdly. Best to take transit, and fill up a basket with ube candies and favorites old and new.
Like 1980s commercials for Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia that reminded viewers of the word the product’s initials spelled, Manila Oriental Market exudes a gruff comfort. It’s not without its detractors. Friends of various ethnic backgrounds have sworn it off altogether, citing hostile service and selective enforcement of arbitrary rules (especially if you brought your own reusable grocery bag). Certainly, it has character: A visit on a Sunday afternoon in early June revealed holiday decorations strung over the aisles, as well as a pigeon flying around. And there used to be a bucket of despondent-looking live frogs, although I haven’t seen one in awhile.
But without a doubt, the northernmost store in the Excelsior, just beyond the highway overpass decorated with the names of the neighborhood’s streets, is wonderful to browse. No trip to 99 Ranch has ever been this fun.
Manila Oriental Market, 4175 Mission St., 415-337-7272, no website.
Read more stories from SF Weekly‘s Excelsior issue:
X Marks the Excelsior
What’s the difference between the Excelsior, Outer Mission, and Crocker-Amazon? Here’s our spreadsheet cheat sheet to these borders.
On the Outskirts But Certainly Not ‘Sleepy’
The little neighborhood at the far end of Mission Street has its fair share of news-worthy drama.
Infinite Appetite, Finite Budget
Its main drag looks a lot like Queens, N.Y., which happens to be the most diverse place in the U.S.
Excelsior’s Princess Diaries House Keeps the Dream Alive
Anne Hathaway got her angst on in a historic Excelsior firehouse. Go there and relive your teenage dreams!
The neighborhood nicknamed ‘Dispensary Row’ has sparked, um, a row over zoning that’s kept new marijuana businesses away from the family-dominated district.