Market Explorer: Zion Korean Market in Kearny Mesa
Exploring the ethnic markets of San Diego County is a great way to get to know the wonderfully diverse county we call home. This week we bring you highlights from Zion Market in Kearny Mesa.
The Market: Zion Market
Location: 7655 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa, San Diego
Hours: Daily, 9am-9pm
Zion Market, is a mini-chain of Korean supermarkets with five locations in Southern California and one in Georgia. The first location opened on Convoy street in 1979, and was the first Korean market in San Diego. Since then, the shop has moved a few times, and in 2013, it landed in its current location on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in what used to be a Sears department store. Inside the mammoth 97,000 square foot structure, there are a collection of smaller shops, including several selling beauty products, a K-Pop store, a small appliance shop, and a lively food court, in addition to the large supermarket that takes up at least half the space. Though the chain is Korean, and the emphasis here is definitely on Korean specialities, they stock a wide selection of Japanese and Chinese products as well. Whether you are a kimchi-making pro who needs to find fermented whole shrimp, or a novice who is curious about exploring the flavors of Korea, this superstore is a wonderland of ingredients and ready-to-eat discoveries.
What to Look for at Zion Market
Kimchi (And All the Right Stuff to Make Your Own)
Kimchi is a staple of the Korean table, a side dish of fermented vegetables, usually including napa cabbage, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal salted shrimp. Many newfangled recipes call for shrimp paste or fish sauce in place of jeotgal, but to make the real deal, you need a jar of these salty little guys. At Zion, an entire aisle is dedicated to premade kimchi and kimchi making ingredients, in quantities ranging from single serving to party platter.
Cheap, Exotic Produce
The produce prices here are incredibly affordable, and along with common ingredients like onions and apples, you'll find some incredible new items to experiment with, like nutty sesame leaves, subtly sweet Korean melons, Southeast Asian banana flowers, Nagaimo wild yams, gobo root, and one of the best mushroom selections anywhere in San Diego.
Kalbi Beef and Pork Belly
The meat selection at Zion is awesome, with thick cut steaks of rich pork belly and tender pork jowl, traditional cuts of Korean short rib kalbi, both marinated and unmarinated, and thin slices of marbled steak for barbecued bulgogi. The quality is excellent and the selection is inspiring.
The aisle of what are essentially fancy Cup-O-Noodles is a sight to behold, and these instant ramen might just change your opinion on instant noodles. Try the kalbi and bulgogi flavors. On an entirely separate aisle, you'll find all manner of Korean japchae, a sweet potato glass noodle that is delicious simply flash cooked and sauteed with vegetables and dressed in a simple sauce of soy, sesame oil, sugar, and garlic.
Korean Rice and Beans
Find Korean short grain rice, mung beans, red beans, and pre-mixed dry packs of Korean-style rice and beans spread over two aisles of this megastore. On the same aisle look for the Korean version of the commonly known Japanese seaweed season-all, Furikake. The Korean version uses larger shreds of nori seaweed and has a slightly sweet flavor.
Pro-biotic Booze (AKA Makkoli)
Makkoli is a traditional Korean alcoholic beverage, better known here as Korean rice wine. It is made by fermenting rice grains for a milky, sweet-bitter-tangy sparkling beverage with about 6% ABV. It is a healthy tonic, a probiotic with high levels of lactic acid bacteria, which is thought to promote healthy digestion. We'll raise a glass to that! Zion also has a large selection of Asian wines, soju, beer, and some liquor.
Korean Pickled Stuff
Besides kimchi, you'll find an entire refrigerated wall next to the deli counter devoted to various pickled delights, from garlic stems to peanuts. Plan to spend some time browsing this colorful section of the store.
Dukbokki Rice Cakes and Chili Paste
Dukbokki is a popular street food in Korea made using cylindrical, dumpling-like rice cakes, fish cakes, and Korean chili paste. The spicy, chewy dish is addictive and easy to make. At Zion, you'll find all the ingredients you need, from the rice and fish cakes to the chili. We like the CJW brand of the chili paste because it has the least number of preservatives and doesn't have any corn syrup added. They also make a soy bean paste with packs as much umami as miso.
Snacks, Cookware, and Other Miscellany
This store is more like a foreign shopping mall, with little side shops like K-Pop and a Korean beauty counter with sheet masks for a dollar, bins of unusual potato chip flavors and seaweed crackers, cookware like kimchi pots, and so many other fun items to explore. Come to Zion with plenty of time to amble, explore, and snack. Just be sure to leave room for lunch in the food court.