In case you haven’t heard: H Mart opens its first location in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 21. Located conveniently just off 280, this H Mart is a thrilling 48,200 square feet that contains not only a grocery store, but a combined market and food hall. Originally founded in Queens, New York in 1982, the market has immense resonance with both the AAPI and chef communities, and now has more than 90 locations across the country, with 12 of those in California — including a couple in San Jose.
This is a big deal for fans who may have already shopped H Mart elsewhere, as well as San Francisco residents who have been craving a Korean-American supermarket for a long time. Take Chef Chris Oh, who grew up in the city where Pac Heights meets Japantown, and now owns restaurants in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. When his mom went grocery shopping, “there were no specific Korean supermarkets, so we had to go to Ranch 99, you know?” Oh says. “We were going to Oakland for sure.”
The first H Mart Oh ever experienced was as a young chef in Los Angeles. “It was like Disneyland for Koreans ... Ranch 99 was a Chinese market, sprinkled in with a little Korean product here and there. So to go to a really large chain Korean supermarket was kind of jaw-dropping,” he says. Oh recommends taking it all in, “the decor, the ambiance,” the colorful packaging, and the giant crabs scuttling around in the seafood department’s tanks. And whether you have shopped H Mart elsewhere, or are just stepping into the glow of the fluorescent lights for the first time, he’s got some hot shopping tips. Here’s what to know before falling down the noodle aisle, according to a San Francisco chef with LA shopping cred.
Holy whole mackerel
H Mart is known for a fresh seafood selection, from live tanks in the back to tidily sliced sushi up front. For his weekly shop, Oh likes to grab a mackerel, either whole or as fillets, which he recommends grilling or pan-frying, and serving with rice and kimchi for a weeknight dinner.
Marinated meats for backyard barbecues
Okay, a chef that owns a Korean barbecue restaurant really doesn’t need to buy meat, but Oh says respects must be paid to the H Mart meat department, which features not just many beautiful cuts of pork belly, but also pre-marinated meats for all your grilling needs. He would tell a buddy to grab the kalbi short ribs for a weekend barbecue.
A full on snack attack
The snack aisle alone “is dope, it’s insane.” Oh is partial to the corn-flavored almonds, but recommends the honey-butter chips. But really, he says, with so many flavors of chips, crackers, and candies, “Just go with open mind. Try it all.”
The aisle of noodle insanity
The noodle aisle is also an experience. Oh says that if you want to try the Jjapaguri noodle dish (aka Ram-Don) that went viral after its appearance in the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, you need to grab both JJapaghetti black bean noodles and Neoguri spicy noodles, cook them together, and then add (ideally medium-rare) steak.
The banchan fridges have all of the side dishes, including a wide selection of kimchi. “Don’t just get regular cabbage,” Oh says. “Most people think kimchi is just cabbage, but you can kimchi anything,” such as different types of radishes, and other root vegetables.
Kimbap for car snacking
Also in the prepared foods section, the chef always grabs a box of kimbap or Korean sushi, stuffed with bulgogi or tuna and pickled vegetables. “That’s like, while you’re doing your shopping, you grab one of those, and once you get in the car, you pop one in your mouth while you’re driving back home,” he explains. He likes to wash it down with Pocari Sweat, the iconic Japanese sport soda.
Never forget the frozen dumplings
And finally, the freezer aisle is fully stocked with everything from Korean corn dogs to wild ice cream flavors. Oh would grab a bag of the Bibigo pork dumplings for last-minute lunches.
Of course, this location of H Mart is a combined supermarket and food hall, so once you’re done with groceries, it’s time for lunch. The San Francisco H Mart is opening with six vendors, most notably Daeho, the Japantown favorite known for its bubbling beef stew, as well as Left Wing for Korean fried chicken and Paris Baguette bakery for cake and pastries. For its grand opening day, there will be a VIP tea time and ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9:30 a.m., before the doors open to the public at 10 a.m. H Mart will be located at 3995 Alemany Boulevard in the Oceanview Village Shopping Center, near the SF Golf Club (read: almost Daly City).