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Da Kine Grinds

Marukai Market classes up the hood

Photo by Jessica CalkinsWhen the Sav-Max store that used to be a Vons supermarket until the Albertsons became a Vons went out of business, my neighbors and I in northern Costa Mesa petitioned to get the cramped Trader Joe's on 17th Street to either move into the empty space or open a second Costa Mesa store there.

Our petition was ignored, and this past spring, Marukai Market, a membership store that specializes in Japanese and Hawaiian products, opened in the disputed spot. At first, this was a pisser, but now that I've joined Marukai, shopped there and sampled from its food court, I have but one thing to say:

POUND SEAWEED, TRAITOR JOE!

Thanks to Marukai, my refrigerator is now filled with tofu and cans of iced Kona coffee, my freezer is stuffed with green-tea ice cream and frozen edamame, and my cabinets are overflowing with wonton chips and wasabi-fortified rice crackers. Once I can remodel the kitchen to add more room, I'll stock squid salads, Yogloo drinks and packaged sea urchin. Okay, probably not the sea urchin.

The 34,000-square-foot store, which costs $10 per year to join, also hawks fountains, massagers, knickknacks, rice cookers, Asian remedies—even furniture. But where Marukai really has Trader Joe's beat is its food court.

At this writing, my favorite counter is L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Their BBQ Mix combo plate includes generous portions of insanely fresh beef, chicken and short ribs that appear to have been beaten flat until they're a tad thicker than jerky and then slathered with a tangy barbecue sauce. It comes with a steamed white rice ball and a mound of rather bland macaroni salad (which can be cured by mixing it in with the rice and sauce remnants). At $6.29, one dish feeds two extremely hungry people.

The chicken katsu ($6.29) has the same combo side dishes surrounding a mound of boneless chicken strips that have been coated in seasonings and, if this is possible, lightlydeep-fried. In other words, it's not KFC gross. An accompanying curry gravy is full of flavor but not as spicy hot as you've come to expect from local Indian joints.

My lone criticism of L&L is that the only vegetable on the menu is the fresh garden salad ($2.39), which must be purchased separately. On the bright side, if you order your dish as takeout, you can head over to the adjoining market—which boasts the largest selection of Hawaiian foods outside of Hawaii—and pick up a six-pack of your favorite Hawaiian Sun beverage. Take the grinds home, turn on the humidifier, slap your favorite Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'Ole disc on the stereo, and it's like you never left the Islands.

The market also sells packaged sushi and sashimi, but I'm afraid those refrigerator-aisle items have been rendered obsolete by the arrival of the food court's Sushi Boy, a familiar Southern California chain that serves a dizzying selection of fresh raw fish. If you're entertaining, you can call ahead and have sushi party trays made up with as many as 94 pieces. For those who don't do sushi, the counter also sells noodles (udon or soba), chicken-teriyaki bowls, tempura and salads.

The next counter over is Ramen Mutsumiya, which offers syoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt) and miso (fermented soybean paste) ramens, which you can get with butter and corn or cha-syuu (boiled pork) toppings.

Crepevine also serves meals in the form of hand-made sandwich crepes, but the specialty is deluxe dessert crepes you can fill and top with so many different sweet things your cardiologist's head will explode. Even when not crepe-ing out, go to Crepevine and order a deluxe tea or coffee drink fortified with boba, those unusual but addicting tapioca balls.

Marukai Market's food court also includes a counter for Me Bakery, but honestly, I've been so full by the time I've reached it that I can't bear to look at the bread racks. It smells wonderful, though.

Marukai Market, located at 2975 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-8 p.m. (the food court counters close about an hour earlier). (714) 751-8433. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, (714) 241-8820; www.hawaiianbarbecue.com; Sushi Boy, (714) 429-1777; Ramen Mutsumiya, (949) 706-7651. www.mutsumiya.co.jp; Crepevine, (714) 546-6989; Me Bakery, (714) 979-3020.
 
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