"The Great Wall Supermarket is...in my opinion, the best Chinese market in the state of New Jersey."
Picture Saturday afternoon. You're in a huge parking lot hoping to find a space that's less than a fifteen-minute walk from the front door. Other shoppers are making it even tougher; parents unloading carts while kids play, elderly folks with canes standing right in front of a minivan that's trying to pull out of the very space you covet, and it looks like half the cars on Earth are going to pull into the lot as soon as the traffic light flashes that little green arrow at the bottom.
You grab a cart and push your way into the brightly lit and jam-packed supermarket and start thinking about how to fill it. Should you start at the entire aisle of frozen dumplings? A whole durian? A quart of sesame oil? But wait! The newsprint circular tells you that fresh pea shoots are on sale that week, so you steer towards the vegetable section.
What kind of store is this? You're in a Chinese supermarket, part of one of the most important fixtures of the New Jersey food scene—huge suburban stores that cater to the home cooking needs of a single ethnic group.
The store I was visiting, The Great Wall Supermarket, is larger than most supermarkets of any sort in New York City and is for the moment, in my opinion, the best Chinese market in the state of New Jersey. When you compare immigrant communities in the big city with those in the Garden State, there's an obvious trade-off. In the city, you have the neighborhoods filled with tiny shops and restaurants that buzz with energy, in the suburbs, neighborhoods are fewer and the scene shifts to places like the Great Wall—sparkling megastores devoted to an immigrant community and its cuisine.
This is a supermarket aimed squarely at Chinese households. On most days, there are over twenty kinds of greens and live frogs, there are fresh Chinese sausages that look to me like something Italian, and that whole aisle of frozen dumplings. While many food activists are protesting food imported from China, here, it's a badge of honor. A place to get the flavors you grew up with. Indeed, I feel like there's no need to describe aisles filled with bottles, cans, and jars of condiments or sacks of rice. It's all there, just more of it than you've ever seen in the area before.
If you're not a Chinese home cook, The Great Wall is worth visiting for a couple of other reasons. First of all, the meat department. I don't know how they source their beef, pork, and poultry but the quality is far better than anything you'll find in the big chain supermarkets (although not up to PA Dutch Market, right down the road) with prices that are often a bit lower. Poultry is an even better deal. How do they get chickens that fresh for prices that low? And where else can you find all three forms of beef tripe out on display?
And finally, there's one other important reason to visit the big Chinese markets: the snack bars. The Great Wall offers noodle soups, Cantonese barbecue, and lunch specials that are at least a notch better than area takeout shops. And the fresh-baked items are just plain tough to find anywhere else in the state.
One last thought. Right now, in July of 2009, I believe The Great Wall is the best Chinese supermarket in the state, but rival chain Asian Food Center is building a new place in Piscataway to replace its recently closed Edison location. With that store take the crown? Stay tuned.