Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

There is something about wandering my local supermarket aisle that is both therapeutic and exciting. The familiarity of heading to the exact location to grab eggs, bananas or green onions;  checking for sale (or better yet, clearance) items and saving a few bucks; examining a new product off the shelf and debating whether I should try it. It’s a task I rarely take lightly. 

If I am working off a list, I can accomplish this errand in the morning and be ready to pay in under 15 minutes. Otherwise, I’ll run my errand after work or over the weekend so I can be as leisurely as I choose. 

Grocery shopping is such a pastime that when Whole Paycheck, I mean Whole Foods, opened its massive complex at The District in Tustin I paralleled the organic, upscale market to Disneyland. My grocery bills were double my usual amounts whenever I’d go, but I would treat visits like a stroll in the park, meandering until my stomach grumbled.

To offset the dollars spent at Whole Foods, I’d rotate between Trader Joe’s for seasonal snacks, Costco for bulk supplies and Sprouts for produce. While I dine out for work multiple times a week, the times I don’t are spent sipping green tea while researching recipes or plotting my next meal out. 

So when a slew of markets began sprouting “Coming Soon” banners, it was a proverbial sign of things to come. From ethnic powerhouse chains to wife-and-husband owned specialty shops, Orange County grocery options were about to blow up in a very good way. Plus, with the holiday season around the corner, now’s the time to review one’s options so that last minute dash to the store is time well-spent. 

H Mart with MJ

Korean culture and cuisine have been trending even before K-dramas began dominating Netflix (I’m currently in the home stretch of “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”) and the boy band BTS won over fans worldwide. It’s a cuisine in OC that’s been around but is experiencing a boom of curious diners. When two additional branches of H Mart were planned to replace existing Albertsons stores in Irvine, despite an existing location in Diamond Jamboree, this was big news. 

MJ Hong of Culinary Adventures with MJ. Credit: Photo courtesy MJ Hong

This specific style of cooking was also one of my COVID comfort cuisines as I watched YouTube cooking videos (see: Aaron and Claire) to pass the time while staying at home. As much as I like Korean dishes, I would normally go out to a restaurant rather than cook it myself. Once one of the new H Marts opened in Westpark Plaza, I invited my friend MJ Hong to cruise the space with me and provide advice on basic ingredients to stock my kitchen pantry with so I could cook my own meals. While our visit wasn’t inspired by Michelle Zauner’s memoir “Crying in H Mart” – which dominated both the L.A. and N.Y. Times nonfiction bestsellers’ lists for over a year – I’m now inclined to pick up a copy.

Formerly a business executive, Hong spent a decade operating her own private event venue and winery. With her professional background, she focused on corporate team building challenges with a culinary theme as well as wine education. Currently, she owns Culinary Adventures with MJ and offers cooking classes, wine pairing courses plus charcuterie board workshops. With the popularity of Korean culture, Hong also launched her website Love Korean Food less than a year ago, where she demonstrates recipes and dispenses advice on ingredients and grocery shopping.

We began our visit discussing the fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi. Hong explained that authentic kimchi will include salted shrimp – something I wasn’t expecting. I also learned that not all kimchi is red; a white version called baek-kimchi does not include the chili pepper power that gives it its spice – ideal for those not accustomed to the heat it brings. Kimchi plays such a large part of Korean cuisine that many choose to make their own. 

White kimchi at H Mart. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

She also educated me on Korean soy sauce known as ganjang. Ganjang in Korean cooking is different from other Asian versions. The variety that is lighter in color, referred to as guk ganjang, is in fact more concentrated with its salty flavor, meaning less will be required in a recipe; it is often used in soup bases or side dishes. For more of an umami flavor (think the kind used in Japanese cuisine), reach for brewed soy sauce, called jin or yangjo ganjang; yangjo is considered higher quality since it doesn’t include any artificial ingredients. It is sometimes labeled “premium” and ideal for everyday cooking.

Another popular staple Hong discussed involves sesame. While sesame seed oil is used during the cooking process, a roasted (sometimes labeled as toasted) variety of oil is primarily used for finishing a dish. “The longer you cook the toasted sesame oil, the more it loses the nuttiness and intensity of flavor,” Hong said. Roasted sesame seeds are also frequently used. If you accidentally purchase white ones, then you’ll need to toast them over a dry pan to bring out the flavor.

Hong pointed out that red chili peppers contribute heat to a dish. When dried, a finely milled, powdered version of these peppers (named gochugaru) is also used for making a hot pepper paste, referred to as gochujang; this spicy paste is commonly found in a red container. Doenjang is the mildest condiment, consisting of fermented soybeans and brine, bringing a savory quality to recipes. Ssamjang is a blend of gochujang and doenjang and imparts a sweet, savory and spicy quality, making it the most versatile of the three when used in stews, alongside vegetables or combined with rice.

Lastly, if you are looking for rice to complement your Korean dish, Hong says white rice is what many Koreans use. A short or medium grain is preferred, and one should always remember to wash the grains until the water runs clear. Hong stressed that brown rice should not be substituted. 

Amis de la Terre Zero-Waste Market

Elsewhere in the county, I learned about two specialty shops that recently opened. Despite the long name, Amis de la Terre has a minimalist approach to grocery shopping. Dispensing baking staples, vinegars, organic seasonings, protein powders and more in Costa Mesa’s Victoria Square, owners Jessica Walden and Chris McGuire are on a mission to reduce the amount of plastic thrown away by instilling a “weigh, tag and fill” approach. Visitors can bring in their own reusable containers or purchase ones on-site, deducting the weight of the vessel before labeling and restocking with their desired product. 

This sustainable concept fits right in with the rest of the plaza, where neighbors include refill shops The Water Brewery and Fill Up, Buttercup! 

“Jamie, the owner of Fill Up, Buttercup! has been one of our biggest supporters and always tells her customers to stop by our shop,” Walden said. 

What I like about this zero-waste shop goes beyond environmental awareness. It’s less bulk selection at a chain grocer and more of a charming Provençal vibe where one can go about one’s business or request full-service assistance and refills while you wait. 

Island Pacific Seafood Market

Opening its very first location in Panorama City in 2000, this Filipino grocer grew to 18 locations throughout California and Las Vegas (two San Diego outposts closed in 2018) before finally adding Orange County to its coverage in October. Deciding to plant roots in Lake Forest was a strategic plan according to founder and CEO Niño Jeff Lim. “The primary (reason) Island Pacific selected Lake Forest as their first Orange County location was to be able to service the big population of Filipino Americans in the surrounding neighborhoods of Lake Forest like Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel so that they no longer need to make the trek elsewhere just to get their Filipino ingredients,” Lim said.

Island Pacific’s in-house eateries include barbecued meats from Philhouse as well as addictive cheese rolls and other treats from San Honore bakery. One of the features of this chain is the option to have its fishmongers clean and fry your fish purchase, eliminating the mess and odor that normally goes along with cooking seafood. Cultural murals and signage are featured throughout the space thanks to artists Kristian Kabuay and Bodeck Luna.

When it comes to sourcing Philippine-specific ingredients and products, the county has few options. The selection of imported products I found at Island Pacific rivals its competitor Seafood City. I actually surprised myself when I grabbed a basket to take home sweet pork sausages, imported soy sauce and calamansi (a type of Philippine citrus) beverages. 

Opening Soon: Aldi Tustin

Set to welcome customers in mid-November, Aldi is a German discount chain that’s a distant relative to Trader Joe’s. With existing locations throughout OC, the next storefront is the former Tustin Lanes property (which subsequently turned into Orchard Supply Hardware before the chain folded in 2018).

Its cost-saving methods include requiring one to insert a quarter to borrow a shopping cart, displays utilizing the boxes products were shipped in, and having to bag your own groceries. By spending less on labor to corral carts and restock shelves, the savings are passed down to customers by setting lower prices. Except for the carts, Aldi reminds me of going to Costco and heading to self-checkout. 

Consuming Aldi’s variety of cheeses, German snacks and affordable wines offered is a guilty pleasure for me, so I save visits for when I want to treat myself to something different.

SoCal Restaurant Show Interview

I was in studio last month speaking with co-host Andy Harris about my recent trip to Sonoma wine country. We also covered my articles on new Huntington Beach spots and Verdant at the Orange County Museum of Art. You can find links to both segments here.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.


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