I have a confession to make.
I’ve been avoiding Marukai ever since it opened here in San Diego. I would drive by it, on my way back from Mitsuwa, acknowledge its presence, and wonder why I would even want to go there when I have finally gotten familiar with Mitsuwa and Zion. I mean, those places have plenty of parking and I know exactly where to go for what I need (bento lunch, korean bbq meat, tofu). Plus, why would I want to go somewhere that requires a membership?
Well, apparently there are quite a few reasons to go there. I will give you my top two: mushi pan and bento lunches. When my mom and aunt were visiting, we stopped at Marukai because my mom had seen Saikyo miso and wanted to stock up. I’m guessing it’s a good brand. We picked up a few other things, including a box of 4 frozen sponge cakes. See, every time my mom goes to Japan, she brings back these buttery, rich, sponge cakes from this one bakery by this one subway station. We’ve tried every single steamed and/or sponge cake from every Japanese market we’ve come across in the US. None are the same. Most aren’t even close. So when she comes back with these cakes, we hoard them and freeze them and portion them out like they might disappear forever (kind of like Mother’s cookies). One might say we have a problem. I would say you’ve just never tasted these treats. If you had, you’d understand.
My mom and aunt tasted the cakes we bought, defrosted in our fridge, and declared them almost identical to the ones from Japan. This is quite a claim. I hadn’t had the foresight to take one in the morning, so when I picked up a few packs for them to take home, I grabbed one for me, too. And I ate it after lunch (it defrosted rather quickly). Honestly, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not that these are the golden muffins I begrudgingly share with T. Now that I know where they are (and have a membership to Marukai) this means they are always available. I may end up eating one every day. I may very well get fat on these delicacies. On the other hand, now I don’t have to wait for someone to go to Japan!
I hesitated telling you this because these muffins are like my best-kept secret. So well kept I didn’t even know they were right around the corner! They’re in the refrigerated case with the other muffins (but these are frozen), eclairs, and jelly rolls. A 4-pack, in a hard plastic case. The little white label has information on it and says “mushi pan” in small, small type. There’s also a mixed pack with 2 chocolate muffins, but our past experience has been that the yellow ones are the best.
Now, the other thing I picked up was a bento lunch. I wanted to see how it compared to the ones I get from Mitsuwa. There is a smaller selection, but I kind of like it that way. Some of the bentos at Mitsuwa have so much in them that I really only want half. From Marukai, I picked up a simple tonkatsu bento with kabocha and a small celery salad. It was perfect – the right amount of food and something a little different. And it was cheaper than the ones I get from Mitsuwa.
There you go. Marukai membership is $10 a year or $5 for seniors. If you go during lunch on weekdays, the parking lot is actually not very crowded. Grab some food (I’m curious about the udon bowls), some mushi pan (but leave some for me) and maybe even some Hawaiian snacks. Perhaps one of these days I’ll actually check out the grocery items.
Now, the one thing I haven’t been able to find in the Marukai stores is hot pot cleaner. My mom brought a box home from Japan and it works wonders. It looks like a large Alka-Seltzer tablet and you drop it into the hot pot and let it sit over night. The next morning, all this flaky, scaly junk is sitting on the bottom and you rinse it out. In case you’re wondering, the hot pot keeps water boiling hot so you can dispense hot water at the touch of a button. Tea purists scoff at this device saying it degrades the quality of tea and purity of water. I say it’s freakin’ wonderful when it’s cold and you drink hot tea at night constantly. It’s also convenient for rehydrating dried mushrooms, preparing instant ramen (or soup), or hot chocolate packets.
If anyone has any idea where I might find these wonder tablets, I’d be eternally grateful.