Wednesday, July 17, 2024


Among the clean, crowded aisles of Central Square’s H Mart opening Wednesday were samples of some of the unique foods. (Photo: Monica Velgos)

Among the clean, crowded aisles of Central Square’s H Mart opening Wednesday were samples of some of the unique foods. (Photo: Monica Velgos)

I live on a quiet block near Central Square and have seen the square’s iterations over the past 17 years with equal parts dismay (Starbucks) and delight (Artist & Craftsman Supply). I also love to cook but unfortunately make not much money writing about food and editing recipes. (Who does these days?)

So I may or may not be the best person to critique the new H Mart, the Korean grocery superstore with 40-plus locations and a grand opening this morning in the former Harvest space in Central Square. The event, complete with energetic Korean folk dancers, drew a gaggle of city officials, local business suits and residents, plus families of all types filling shopping carts. There were also numerous hyped-up 20- and 30-somethings who must have gone in late to work so they could shop for dinner a dozen hours after eating their last one.

Some neighbors in the hood are worried about parking and huge delivery trucks. Me? I approached the open doors wondering if H Mart would have sticky rice.

Even though I’ve made regular trips to Super 88 in Boston and Kam Man Food in Quincy, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I encountered at H Mart: Everything was super clean. Employees greeted me enthusiastically. There were no live turtles in tanks (yay!). And while walking its aisles I began to see clearly how I could orchestrate making dinner for a picky vegan teen daughter, a vegetable-hater son who downs whole fish like a bear, skin and all, and a husband who prefers to not eat wheat if he can help it.

What I couldn’t see clearly was how this mega mart just burst through the floors in a space I thought I knew so well.

042314i Cooking with burdock bI began by putting on blinders while passing the food stalls (Paris Baguette, Sapporo Ramen and Go Go Curry) and headed for the aisles (I am a cook, after all). I swiftly located the gochujang, the Korean red chili sauce that I’ve had on my list to get for years. (Not so easy was choosing among the many brands.) From there I wandered outward, passing the various noodles dried and fresh, an abundant nori display, trays of bulgogi, greens galore, mushrooms of all types, pickled vegetables, freshly filleted and pre-filleted fish, cleanly cut meat in packages, Japanese sweet bean buns and a rather confident display of burdock. The mesmerizing freezer case had more choices of dumplings than I’d seen at Kam Man, and a sea of ice creams I couldn’t even read.

One part of the produce section looked just like Whole Foods (plums, peaches, Earthbound Farm). I even saw the management team of the Prospect Whole Foods walking the aisles wide-eyed and perhaps a little worried. They were there, walking and talking, for at least a full hour.

A friend of mine who lives on Essex Street brought her daughter and was surprisingly thrilled (considering the potential parking issues). I saw in her eyes what I knew was transmitting from mine: This place is great. She pointed out all the younger people, and that there didn’t seem to be cars cruising for a space down her block, and that people were walking out with a bag or two they could carry easily on the subway.

Look, I still need Prospect Whole Foods and I still need Harvest Co-op. I love Italian food and artisan breads and local organic produce and greeting all the familiar employees at both places, many who’ve been there for years. Harvest, in particular, has an indescribable calming vibe that makes you want to shop forever. This is certainly not the case at the sensory overload that is H Mart.

But neither Whole Foods and Harvest sell Shaoxing wine or gochujang. And they don’t sell sticky rice. I spent $28 at H Mart today, but nothing I bought was available anywhere else nearby.

Having another place that gets people cooking even more is only good for everyone.

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Monica Velgos is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and editor of recipes by Master Chef Rudi Sodamin of Holland America Line.