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At Pacific East 99 Ranch Mall, Every Day’s a Holiday

Tuesday January 20, 2004

Paradise is only a few miles or so north of Berkeley, but the parking lot may be full so give yourself a little extra time. 

This particular promised land is disguised as “Pacific East 99 Ranch Mall.” The Pacific is of course to our west, so the name itself is deceptive. 

As for the “99” various authorities ascribe portents of longevity and good luck to the number in Chinese, and in fact the chain, which started in Southern California, is growing. 

However, “ranch” can only be understood as genuine American realestatespeak. It is doubtful that any piece of property in the greater Bay Area less resembles a ranch, but this is completely consistent with, for example, developments called “Rio Vista Rancheros” in which too many homes are squeezed onto tiny tracts of land that has neither river nor views available. 

But all these concerns dissolve once you enter the mall—and find yourself, like Dorothy newly descended from the tornado, in another world. 

Here is the mysteriously named “168 Restaurant” as well as the more informative Phuping Thai, Shanghai Gourmet, Pacific East Seafood, Coriya Hot Pot City, VH Noodle House, and more.  

Of course, there are further mysteries within. 

One tiny shop offers, according to its multilingual posters, 30 milk teas including mocha, 30 black and green teas including hot passion fruit, 30 icy smoothies (among them pina colada), 30 juices, including avocado juice with milk and watermelon juice with milk, coffee, eight flavors of ice cream, and “giant toast” with sesame, peanut or garlic butter or strawberry jam. One handwritten sign taped to one side offers “fresh sushi 50 percent off after 8 p.m..” 

All is not food. The “Just In Shop” features fashion (newly arrived?). A Korean-American ginseng store features the root in many incarnations, as well as tea sets and other accessories. “Crystal Land” has thousands of tiny crystal figures. Wind-up pets, fresh royal jelly and bee pollen, preserved fruits, and gewgaws of all sorts are on display. 

A beauty parlor features “Vitaviv” with drawings of a cartoon figure energetically applying Vitaviv to various parts of the body. 

With the right amount of money, you can have your picture taken and reproduced in a sheet of tiny postage stamp images.  

There is a Charles Schwab office, open weekdays. 

One restaurant is featuring “shepherds purse and pork in clay pot.” One wonders nervously what a shepherd’s purse might be. 

But the heart of the center is the market itself, with row upon row of arcane products—or familiar ones in bewildering variety. A stroll down the noodle aisle reveals, among other delights, elephant rice stick, kimbo dried imitation noodle, long life sliced rice stick, bon pho rice stick, new jam rice stick (medium, large or small), spring roll skins, Japanese style noodles, sei men, chow mein, soroban, soba noodles, dry noodles yellow, egg noodles, Chinese noodle, buckwheat noodle, flour vermicielli, packaged noodles with sauce, abalone flavored noodles, ribbons, green bean sauce noodles, green bean thread noodles...Fresh noodles fill another, refrigerated case. And if you prefer Golden Grain macaroni, that’s available too (in the exotic foods section?). 

Frozen soy beans share space with a frozen whole goose, near a frozen silky (Hmmm...looks like a chicken soaked in soy). 

Produce always includes at least one surprise, among the many kinds of greens, the durian looking like some kind of lethal weapon, pomelos and passion fruit. Today’s wonder is banana buds at $1.99 a pound—enormous and a beautiful color, though it is difficult to see what is or could be edible. 

Fishes and sea creatures of every cut, size, shape and description are available, and will be prepared to your liking—even if your liking is to have the whole fish deep fried, a kettle of boiling oil awaits. Live crab is a traditional ingredient of the new year feast. 

One could easily spend a day, even a weekend. Over in one corner of the market, a cafeteria offers colossal servings for ridiculously low prices. Free sample givers offered two kinds of soup and a warm (but formerly frozen) black bean cake.  

Because it is almost New Year, there are thousands of red-wrapped boxes of treats: dried fruit, salty fried flour, rice cake, ginger candy, etc. etc. etc.  

Outside the main building is a separate restaurant called Daimo. It may be outside because it is closer to chaos than an ordinary mall could tolerate. Its chefs work in a gleaming kitchen to produce an astonishing variety of dishes. Waiters and waitresses talk to each other over cell phones, and when things are especially busy you may not see the same waitperson twice. Tanks high in one corner hold fish and other sea creatures ready to be dispatched at your order. 

Somehow it all seems to work, usually, although there can be language problems. It is a good place to try something you’ve never heard of. Far more often than not, the food passes the test proposed by the late Dr. Y.R. Chao, a prominent linguist:  

“To test whether the cooking has been done properly, observe the person served. If he utters a voiced bilabial nasal consonant with a slow falling intonation, it is good. If he utters the syllable ‘yum’ in reduplicated form, it is very good.”