Monday, November 24, 2014

Is It Worth The Trip? Emily Checks Out Great Wall, The Chinese Supermarket In Catonsville

Great Wall has Chinese duck, pork and chickens
Our options keep expanding faster than I can check them out.  Like the Great Wall Supermarket in Catonsville that opened in late 2013 -- and that I still haven't visited.

Luckily, I got an expert report from Emily of the Howard County Cook blog.  Emily is a first-generation Chinese-American who was born in Chicago and raised in Houston, home to one of the largest Chinatowns in the United States.

Emily's parents originally immigrated from Taiwan for graduate school.  She and her family -- including a husband and two kids -- moved to Maryland about five years ago.  She volunteers at local shelters, their school and church, and she has blogged about all kinds of eating and recipes, including red cooked pork belly and a yellow curry with squash and chicken.  She also wrote a great series based on the finds in her Breezy Willow CSA.

Emily and I got to talking about Great Wall, which is a Chinese-run grocery on Rte 40 just inside Rte 695.  I'm a huge fan of the Korean-run supermarkets like H Mart and Lotte, and they both offer Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and other cuisines.  But I wondered what finds might make it worth driving past both to try a market aimed at a Chinese market.  Emily checked out Great Wall, giving her report and suggesting some items just like the Unmanly Chef wrote up the Caspian Market last month:
Even though I live five minutes from the Lotte close to Rte 29 and Rte 40, I usually travel to H Mart about 15 minutes away because I know where everything is.  I find the produce to be more consistent on any given day, and it’s small, which means there is a higher turn around on their produce.

I was a little worried I would find Great Wall to be too far. It really wasn’t. I drove past H Mart, past Rte 695, and there it was, just inside 695 on the left. Google told me it would take 22 minutes. Google was about right on. I realized I had been there before -- at the Asian grocery that was there previously, but apparently had closed.
Once inside, I was impressed by the variety of produce, all looking fresh. Check. The prices looked good too.  There were some really great deals, and some fair prices, comparable to the other Asian stores. I was VERY happy to find a huge stack of perfect Japanese eggplant. Not bruised, not wrinkled, perfect. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about, was that many of the leafy Chinese vegetables were pre-packaged into plastic bags. That sort of thing drives me nuts. I like to see, touch, examine, and pick my own produce, so I wasn’t a fan of that. Not all of the produce was that way, just most of the green Chinese veggies. I'm not sure why, and I hope they do away with that.

Just past the produce, however, I heard angels sing.  A light from heaven shone down on the glass case of roasted duck, Chinese BBQ pork, and soy sauce chickens.  These are Cantonese staples found in any good Chinese grocery store in Chinatowns across America. I haven’t seen one since since the last time I was in Houston, I think.  I drooled and stared for a long time at the meats, wondering if they were any good.  Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Then I saw a very long cafeteria style set up of various cooked Chinese vegetables and meat dishes, and a sign. Again, flashbacks to Chinese “to go” places that are a dime a dozen back home. Again wondering, is it good? It was certainly a steal at $5.99 for rice and three choices of entrees, which included everything from black bean bitter melon and braised eggplant, to a variety of stir-fried meat and vegetables and stewed meats. There were even tea eggs- 2 for $1! A case nearby held Chinese baked pastries- they looked promising. I'm leery of pastries in grocery stores back home, because they're never as good as the ones from bakeries. And yes, they look just like Korean pastries, but I promise they are different.

Moving along, I found a goldmine of essential Chinese ingredients -- a whole case of dried items, 25 choices of Chinese sausage, bar of choose your own fish balls (not as bad as it sounds), and seaweed and bamboo by weight, just to name a few. There was even thousand year old eggs (also not as bad as it sounds).

The meat cases looked great; NOT pre-packaged but butcher style, so you can pick exactly which piece of meat you want and the prices were good. The seafood section looked good too- all the prices ranged from good to fair, and there was the obligatory tanks of fresh tilapia and lobster. I’m not a big fan of tilapia, but it’s a cheap live fish that most Chinese markets seem to offer these days. The live lobster selection looked awesome, and there were live eels and live dungeness crab too, if that suits your fancy! Ironically, the large pan of blue crabs looked either dead or dying- and needed to be thrown out.
There was an extensive frozen food section with a huge selection of pre-cooked steamed buns filled with meats or sweet pastes, dumplings, dim sum items, and other goodies. If you wanted to fill your cart with just this stuff and put them in the deep freeze, you’d be set for a while. I found packaged zhong zi -- bamboo leaves filled with sticky rice, meats, mushrooms -- which are a special food made for a particular Chinese holiday honoring a poet. Yes, a poet -- Google it.

I moved quickly through the dry goods and canned/jarred aisles, but there was an entire aisle devoted to dried noodles. (Yes!) Another whole aisle contained cookware and dinnerware essential for Chinese cooking.

So what did I end up getting? Sadly, I was about to go out of town when I went to Great Wall, so I picked up a pound of BBQ pork (cha sao) and a pack of small frozen “flower buns” -- delicate steamed buns that my kids love. I will definitely be back to do a week's worth of grocery shopping and will post back on HowChow on the quality of the food as well as how my budget fared.

I did consult with a few friends who live near and frequent Great Wall, however, and they confirmed that the hot food lunch boxes for $5.99 were good and had generous portions (fed an adult and two small children). They felt like there was a good assortment of accessible dishes as well as authentic ones. They also confirmed a great selection of produce at reasonable prices, with occasional amazing produce deals.

Well there you have it.  Is Great Wall worth the trip?  The answer is a resounding "Yes," I think.  But please go and decide for yourself. It’s certainly worth going to pick up Chinese specific items like the fresh bamboo and seaweed, Chinese sausage, Chinese noodles, and vegetables such as the Japanese eggplant, Chinese celery (long thin celery), bok-choy family veggies, and special fresh fruits like longan (that are similar to a lychee and can be peeled and eaten).

And if cooking isn’t your thing, the roast duck, BBQ pork, soy chicken, and hot food bar is definitely worth picking up for dinner/lunch to go. (Did I mention you can order a whole roast pig? Why yes, yes you can.) Think of the frozen section as how you can stock up your freezer with some easy dinners. I’d pick up some steamed buns (plain and filled), dumplings, and dim sum specialties. Just throw in the steamer at home for an easy dinner.

I love that we have another Asian grocery store to choose from in the area. Choices are a good thing. :) Have fun exploring, try some new things and let us all know what you think!
I definitely need to try this place.  It might be an adventure for me and Lil' Chow during the week after Thanksgiving.  I could imagine him enjoying barbecued pork, and he has eaten almost every noodles that we put in front of him.  It's comic actually.


Trip Klaus said...

I have a Great Wall near me and have to agree that one of it's assets is the Chinese sausage selection. I'm slowly working my way through them. Their produce Is good and fresh some priced better, some priced worse than Lotte or others. Their main bonus keep them in mind for next Moon festival. This year they had at least 40 different types of moon cakes from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and a wonderful bakery in California. Many more selections than Lotte, H Mart or any other store I have seen. Many more fruit flavored as well as the red bean. Was a real boon this year.

Anonymous said...

Yay! I can't wait to hit this market so I can pick up some char siu, lup cheong and chow fun noodles! I have my mom send me lup cheong from the Chinatown in Hawaii! I wonder if they have chinese roast pork there as well?

Yaofu said...

I frequent Lotte and Hmart a lot before Great Wall opened their store on Rt 40. But I find myself going to Great Wall more and more lately even though it means driving 10 minutes further than Lotte. I can not say for others. But I think it is definitely worth the drive.

The produce are fresh, abundant and reasonably priced. As a Chinese, there are usually more items that I want than Lotte or Hmart, particularly the greens. I like all other groceries there as well like gadgets, pots, pans etc.

As for the plastic bags the author mentioned, I am the same as her that I like to touch and feel these greens. But I think it is better for us not to. Compared to broccoli, green beans or even kales, the prepackaged greens are more fragile. Most of them have textures similar to lettuce, spinach and arugula. Touching them would be unsanitary and may cause bruise/damage. Ultimately, our customers would end up paying for these bruise/damage altogether with higher prices. I hope it make sense.

bmorecupcake said...

I'm a Great Wall fan, too. The home goods section there is a lot of fun and very affordable. For example, they have a mango peeler for less than $3 that can go for $10+ online. (I still can't figure out how it really works, though.) For knives -- including Chinese cleavers -- you'll have to go to the customer service counter. Again, they have Kiwi-brand knives for much less than online. Some items are cheaper than H-Mart, for example Aroy-D brand (preservative free) coconut milk cans. H-Mart has reduced their variety of dried Chinese noodles, so I come to Great Wall to stock up on those, too.