"Beautiful bellies, bones for soup, ears and intestines, you name it, it's there."
Back in July I wrote: "Right now... 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. Will that store take the crown? Stay tuned."
Well, that store in Piscataway, is open now and its time to revisit the subject.
The first thing you'll notice when you drive up to the new Asian Food Center is that it's right there with a Lowe's, a Panera Bread, and a WalMart. This in itself is a bit of a surprise, for those of us old enough to remember when "ethnic" grocery stores were dark, tiny, and well-hidden. This store is large, easy to navigate, and has plenty of parking. And located right near I-287, it's easy to reach from all over the area.
Not long ago, I visited the place with a huge shopping list and a small camera and set off to see what they've done. Try to take a photo inside and one big difference will be obvious: the place is really well-lit. You can see whatever you need to and easily read every label—a lesson that needs to be taught to almost every supermarket in the state.
The Asian Food Center hits the strong points of New Jersey Chinese supermarkets as well as anybody and falls short only where everybody else does. In Chinese "pork" and "meat" are the same word, and it shows. This place is pork paradise with everything but the oink on display. Beautiful bellies, bones for soup, ears and intestines, you name it, it's there.
The fish department is just as impressive. I wanted to toss my list when I saw the fresh skate and live eel. Properly wrapped whole fish, with clear freshness dating, sets a new standard. Frozen fish is impressive as well. After seeing a tray of baby octopus, I couldn't get the flavor of them marinated in garlic and herbs out of my head—the food equivalent of Muzak.
Produce fans will not be disappointed. Four kinds of yams, all those roots, and more than twenty different varieties of leafy greens—including Taiwan bok choi, tago choi, and one or two that you've either never saw before or haven't seen since the last time you were in China.
Because everybody else is going towards more and more takeout—indeed, new A&P stores look more like giant delis than supermarkets—I foolishly assumed that Asian Food Center would do the same. Wisely (and with no sympathy for visiting gringos at all) they've shrunk the takeout and bakery areas and devoted more room to fresh pastas and breads. You can buy a steam table "three dish" lunch or a birthday cake, but there's no effort to match what earlier stores had. This store preserves every square foot it can for serious home cooks.
If you're an observer of suburban immigrant culture, you'll see that unlike city neighborhoods, out here, what counts aren't restaurants, but supermarkets. If there's one sweeping generalization I can make about my neighbors, it's that they cook. If you do, too, you owe it to yourself to visit Asian Food Center. There may be no place to sit down and have a snack, but if this is your kind of store, you can cook better than any takeout counter anyway.
Asian Food Center
1339 Centennial Avenue, Piscataway, NJ 08854 (map) 732-981-0730
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