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Ramos has been making change at the register and helping out around the store since she was fifteen, and after a brief hiatus, she returned to help her sister, Isabel, take over the family business in 1997. But their mother, Natividad, still holds court at La Borinqueña on Saturdays. "I love it when you walk in to a business and you say, 'Hi mamma,' and someone from behind the counter can actually answer," Ramos said.
In addition to her passion for feeding people ("I joke that it's the little Latina grandma in my soul," Ramos said), helping to propel her grandmother and mother's efforts forward is what keeps her personally motivated. "This was a big thing for grandma to do, and I'm proud to carry on what she did," Ramos said. "I want to continue that history and figure out how it translates to modern times."
Tokyo Fish Market (1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; TokyoFish.net) is another ethnic grocery that started as a family affair. Larry Fujita's parents opened the store in 1963, and over the years, it has garnered a reputation for selling the area's best sashimi-grade fish (the 100 or so varieties of seafood found in the market's 49-foot fish case is now handled by co-owner Lee Nakamura, who used to run the fish counter at Berkeley Bowl).
The tidy shop is also the place to find all types of Japanese foodstuffs: pickled vegetables, frozen gyoza, miso pastes, natto, and noodles galore. Fujita, who ironically is allergic to shellfish, personally sees to it that the market's produce is fresh by doing the daily fruit and vegetable buying himself, starting at around 1 a.m.
"It's easy to fax in an order or do it by phone, but I would not be happy doing it that way," he said. "Everyone knows I'm picky. We try to keep up the quality. We can't always keep up with the pricing of big stores, but we keep up the quality. That's our niche."
It's apparently an appealing one. During the holidays, the lines used to circle the 1,700 square-foot building, so in 2005 Fujita expanded the business to three times its original size. Three years ago, he installed a deli, where sushi and bento boxes are prepared by the former owners of Yokohama restaurant in El Cerrito.
Fujita said he and his sister, Carolyn, keep the business going in homage to their ninety-year-old mother, who singlehandedly kept everything afloat after her husband died in 1971. "She was tough," Fujita said. "She was here from eight in the morning to 6:30 or seven at night. She got home and she'd cook meals and do all of the accounting bookwork. She'd stay up late doing that. She'd do the wash on Sundays, the only day the store is closed. I have a lot of respect for what she did. She didn't complain; she just did it."
Zand's (1401 Solano Ave., Albany; ZandPastry.com) is yet another mom-powered enterprise, run by Monier Attar, who has two grown children whom she proudly mentions at any opportunity. The shop specializes in Iranian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean prepared foods and dry goods, including teas, tahini, grape seed oil, spices, and breads.
But the pastries — the decadent pistachio baklava or chocolate eclairs — are a big draw, and here, Attar draws from vast experience. In her native Iran, Attar owned one of Tehran's first French bakeries, but following the Iranian Revolution, the theocratic government closed down her business because she declined to stop serving women who refused to wear a hijab.
Attar and her two young children eventually made it to Berkeley, where she had a brother and an aunt. Four years later, after saving $7,000 by working three part-time jobs and babysitting in the evenings, she opened up Zand's in a 500 square-foot Albany storefront.
"My motivation was that I was so homesick," she said of starting her own shop. "It was my dad's idea. He said, 'You are working so hard for other businesses, why don't you do your own?' The first three years were tough. But Iranians didn't have a nice, clean place then and it didn't take long for them to find us."
Zand's expanded to its current location in 2001, and Attar began selling prepared foods, including house-made hummus and falafel, and tah cheen, an Iranian dish of oven-baked Basmati rice with chicken, saffron, and barberries. Half of Zand's menu consists of Persian fare, with Attar drawing on her own mother's recipes. And every other day, her daughter makes a batch of spanakopita, which is sold at the shop.
Despite the six-day-a-week workweeks, Attar said she's glad she ended up running her business in a town halfway across the globe from her home country. "I love it," she said. "I don't have much free time, but the time I'm working, I'm having fun. I don't look at it as work. I see it as a place I go to see my favorite people."
You don't have to look far in the East Bay to find fine ethnic groceries. Forego a trip to Trader Joe's and stroll the aisles of GB Ratto's (821 Washington St., Oakland; Rattos.com) for Italian goods, The Spanish Table (1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; SpanishTable.com) for tasty cured meats, Indus Food Center (1920 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley) for Indian spices, and Nordic House (2709 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; NordicHouse.com) for a wide array of Scandinavian delicacies.
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