Produce Warehouse

Photo by Tenaya HillsProduce Warehouse's name and location don't befit this remarkable food mart. It's a tiny store sandwiched between a car wash and a shopping center on Santa Ana's 17th Street, in one of those otherwise-dreary two-story office complexes favored by driving schools and Alcoholics Anonymous groups. If you drive past Produce Warehouse and notice its dull street-side sign, you'll keep driving—how much excitement can you expect from a placed called Produce Warehouse?

But the next time you zip by, look for the pastel blue of the Argentine flag taped to Produce Warehouse's window. Swerve into the parking lot. Sure, it's still pretty mundane from the outside: sheets of paper tacked to a bulletin board advertise the day's specials, while the scattering of shopping carts suggests a teenage prank gone awry. When the automatic doors open, however, an intriguing blend of Farsi, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish and English originating from the two checkout lines will entice you inside. Bienvenidos—you're now meandering around one of Orange County's finest economic arguments for multiculturalism.

Though miniscule, Produce Warehouse offers more ethnic grocery options than a Brooklyn neighborhood. A corner near the back focuses on Indian products: everything from mango chutneys to rosewater and incense tubes that cost a quarter. Nearby, you'll find racks of lavash, crispy Persian flatbread that look and feel like pillowcases. The Middle Eastern section next to the deli counter is like a museum of pickled products. There's instant Croatian broccoli soup.

Dizzying variety aside, Produce Warehouse functions finest as a refuge for the non-Mexican Latino weary of drawing quizzical looks whenever they request homeland treats from local Mexican supermarkets like Northgate or La Rioja. You'll find such rarities as Colombian guava paste, purple Peruvian corn, even a Guatemalan knockoff of El Salvador's famed Kolashampan orange-cream soda. The country most thoroughly represented is Argentina, with the Italian potato dumpling gnocchi, salty rice crackers, more than 20 varieties of the scalding national drink yerba mate, and bags of the popular but blatantly racist Blancaflor flour mix (the brand's blackfaced logo looks like something from Al Jolson's day). Don't miss the alfajores, Produce Warehouse's tastiest and cheapest offering; Oreos have nothing on this South American cavity, a crumbly double-layered shortbread cookie with a center made from the caramel-like confection dulce de leche. Produce Warehouse stocks 16 different alfajores, from the 39-cent Fantoche label dusted with a white meringue coat to the fruit-based two-for-a-buck Jorgito variety. The only non-Argentine alfajor also happens to be the Rolls-Royce of the alfajor world, the Alfajor Marplatenses. Concocted by the Garden Grove-based Keko's Foods, these treasures lie delicately wrapped in a flan-colored paper behind glass. You'll keep the wrapper but chomp through the alfajor with ardor, the tension between the dulce de leche and white chocolate outside as intricate and intense as a couple dancing the tango on their silver anniversary.

Produce Warehouse, 1225 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-8111.

Wanna dine? E-mail Gustavo At ga*******@oc******.com“>ga*******@oc******.com. For the best damn dining recommendations in Orange County (more than 500 restaurants!), Visit our online dining guide at www.ocweekly.com/food.

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