Meet five local specialty stores that everyone in the area should know: Big John’s PFI, Mendoza’s Mexican Mercado, Maruta Shoten, the Spanish Table and Paris Grocery. From paella pans to miso paste, they’ve got you covered.

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I found out recently that a food-loving friend who’s newish to town had never heard of Big John’s PFI. Big John’s isn’t a secret — newcomers should get its address in the pocket of their City of Seattle-issued raincoats. Since that’s not happening, and it’s gift-giving season, and the best gifts are made of food, here’s an intro to five local specialty stores that everyone should know.

Big John’s PFI

(1001 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle; 206-682-2022, bigjohnspfi.com)

“Trader Joe” Coulombe has an MBA from Stanford, sports a lean frame and sold the chain in 1979. “Big John” Croce originally peddled olive oil out of his ’68 Plymouth Valiant, got his nickname from his girth and poured his heart into his SoDo business. The massive array of delicious things to eat at Big John’s Pacific Food Importers is a testament to the size of that heart.

PFI is sensory overload: the heady scent of spices being scooped, the sweet funk of 180-plus kinds of cheese getting sliced, carts clattering across the concrete floor, debates about which kind of tinned sardines are best. You might find beans scattered on the floor in the bulk section, boxes left mid-unpacking in the aisles, the roll-up warehouse door open for air.

Big John’s Pacific Food Importers, a grocery store in SoDo, carries Italian and Mediterranean ingredients including bulk olives, exotic spices and nearly 200 types of cheese. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Get a big tin of excellent olive oil, a bar of fragrant olive oil soap, umpteen kinds of tea, falafel mix, olives stuffed with chorizo, everything you need to make lasagna, boquerones and/or miniature marzipan pigs eaten on Christmas for good luck (“If you use them as stocking stuffers, then everyone’s OK,” a helpful clerk said).

Big John departed this earth in August at age 91, and if the universe is just, he’s gone to a better place. Meanwhile, his family carries on his legacy, so we’ve still got a better place in the form of Big John’s PFI.

Mendoza’s has both roasted chapulines and salsa with chapulines (that’s grasshoppers).  (Bethany Jean Clement/The Seattle Times)
Mendoza’s has both roasted chapulines and salsa with chapulines (that’s grasshoppers). (Bethany Jean Clement/The Seattle Times)

Mendoza’s Mexican Mercado

(7811 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-245-1089)

Monica Dimas, who runs Neon Taco and Tortas Condesa, recommends this tiny grocery that Sonia Mendoza runs with her husband, Carlos, near Green Lake. Those who say not to shop when you’re hungry are wrong here: Mendoza’s also serves very tasty tamales, chiles rellenos and more on heavy pottery plates in the back. Eyeballing the meat counter and starburst-shaped piñatas provides the entertainment.

For a later feast at home, Mendoza’s has house-made tortillas and salsas; carne asada and adobada, ready to grill; Mexican and Salvadorean sour cream; superfresh, crumbly-soft queso fresco. If you want to make posole on a cruelly short, rainy Seattle day, they’ve got cans of hominy, packets of Mexican spices and eight bins of dried chili peppers.

Someone you know probably wants to try Mendoza’s roasted chapulines. A package of Mexican hot chocolate (Carlos prefers Abuelita brand) and a molinillo (the turned-wood whisk for making it) makes a happy cold-weather gift. Give a wooden tortilla press and a bag of masa, and you’ll likely get to try the resulting tortillas. Mendoza’s even has a handsome Estrella cast-iron manual-crank grinder for corn, about which Carlos said, somewhat mournfully, “No one wants that stuff anymore.” Prove him wrong.

Maruta Shoten

(1024 S. Bailey St., Seattle; 206-767-5002, marutashoten.com)

If you’re new to Seattle and haven’t been to mammoth Asian supermarket Uwajimaya, you absolutely must go (there’s also one in Bellevue, one in Renton, and one in Beaverton, Ore.). Low-slung, tidy, brightly lit Maruta Shoten in Georgetown is diminutive by comparison, but still has much to explore, and you might find prices cheaper here, too. Roll your own sushi with Maruta’s ready-cut fish, bags of sushi-grade rice, mirin, nori and wasabi (plus pickled ginger, near the refrigerated noodles). Stock up on instant miso soup or miso paste, or dried soba, udon, somen and ramen.

The green-tea selection is modest but also modestly priced, as is a personal-size teapot with a scattering of abstract flowers — just $5.99. There’s origami paper, a hand towel with a bunny on it, incense in “the fragrance of our ancestors,” lots of Hello Kitty candy, bottles of plum wine with plums resting at the bottom, and small cans of sparkling sake or mimosa that seem meant for on-the-go. Come at lunchtime and get sushi or donburi from the deli counter; the squid tempura is good, too.

 

The Spanish Table

(1426 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-682-2827, spanishtable.com)

The most impressive thing about the Spanish Table might be the paella pans: Shiny and red-handled, they’re stacked and hung all over one corner of the store, ranging from the improbably small (no one makes the Spanish rice-and-seafood extravaganza just for two) to the impossibly enormous (51 inches wide, suited for 200 portions, $800). Serving Seattle’s Spanish-comestible needs for the past 20 years, the friendly, overstuffed shop on the backside of Pike Place Market also has (plural) paella cookbooks, arborio rice, chorizo, saffron and even gas grills specially designed for paella-making.

Whole legs of Spanish ham are stocked, and owner Sharon Baden’s only kind of kidding when she says, “Lay that next to somebody’s Christmas stocking!” It’s easy to get overwhelmed here: the spices, the nuts, the goat-flavored bouillon cubes. Head to the back and check out the clay cookware and the well-priced serving/cutting boards (the round one for octopus could be used for anything), as well as the especially pretty hornbeam and olive-wood spoons. And don’t be afraid to ask for help with wine: They’ve got more than 700 kinds.

Paris Grocery

(1418 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-682-0679, parisgroceryseattle.wordpress.com)

We’ll always have Paris, and in Seattle, we have Paris Grocery to bend that sentiment to the sweet side of bittersweet. Assemble a reminiscence picnic here — choose from 500 or so French wines, around 50 cheeses, assorted charcuterie, stellar butters, the Clement Faugier Crème de Marrons that some say is better than Nutella — and all you need is the right baguette (and the right person, and, right now, enough room indoors to spread out a blanket).

On Western below Pike Place Market (close to the Spanish Table — same owners), this shop is a haven for French people who are forced to live locally. Some of them reportedly get teary-eyed when they first see the Amora-brand Dijon mustard or the mirabelle jam of their homeland.

Of course, there are gifts galore: cookbooks (in English), “The Grinch” (in French), classic bistro glassware, Paris tea towels, Emile Henry ceramics, a DIY chèvre kit, a metal 3-D model of the Eiffel Tower … but if you can’t give plane tickets, the picnic might be your best bet.