Business Food

Top Japanese Supermarkets in SoCal

No need to rely on the limited and pricey "Oriental" aisle or the ethnic section of your mainstream grocery store.

If you live in SoCal, from Los Angeles, Orange County, to San Diego, you’ll be happy to know that this region has plenty of Japanese grocery store chains operating here. If you aren’t living here, you will be glad to know that a few also do online sales.

Listed below are the best markets for you to be able to be pull off that recipe on Just One Cookbook or to stockpile up on edamame, ramen, Japanese craft beers/sake, beauty supplies or well, umm, a stuffed Korohamu plush hamster.


Listed in Alphabetical Order

Marukai

Established in 1965, Marukai Corporation was the first international Japan-based retailer to offer a wholesale market and membership system. In 2013 Marukai joined the Don Quijote Group which is a Japanese company with over 150 stores domestically that carry more than 45,000 products.

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Pictured is the 45,000 sq. ft. Marukai “Forum” which was opened in 1996.

Pros: Marukai has been in the U.S. market for quite some time, so they have a well established name and reputation which is for having a large variety of items at competitive pricing.

Cons: With all the recent changes, what isn’t nailed down is the differences between Marukai and a Tokyo Central store. That’s an issue because if you’re going to have some Marukai stores convert to Tokyo Central stores, but not all of them, why not make it clear on what the differences are between the two. Otherwise long time shoppers of Marukai are left to wonder why their beloved store was converted into a Tokyo Central where as other regions got to hang on to theirs.

Image Gallery: Marukai Gardena

  • Headquarters: Gardena, CA
  • Founded: 1965
  • Number of locations in SoCal: 5
  • Locations (link to Google Places/Maps):Gardena, Cupertino, Little Tokyo LA, Gardena (pictured), San Diego, West LA.
  • Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 9:00 pm
  • Notes: I’ve long relied on Marukai to come through with Hawaiian food products like lau lau (pork, chicken, etc), and I’m sure I account for one of the bigger buyers of that product. It’s also the reason why I’ve noticed that Keoki’s lau lau went from roughly $11 for a 3-pack to the Tokyo Central price of $16+ ($13.49 at other online stores). So, if they’re both the same company, why the price increase? Or would this product be cheaper at Marukai? EDIT 7/15/2017: tried to look up the pricing on their online store, but it’s not listed (because it’s a freezer item).
  • Website: www.marukai.com
  • Online store: www.tokyocentral.com
  • Social: none

Mitsuwa

“Mitsuwa Marketplace is the largest Japanese Supermarket in the U. S.” is what they tout on the Mitsuwa marketplace website. That sounds impressive and all, but if grocery shopping isn’t your thing, Mitsuwa is your market. The reason is, you don’t have to be much of a cook to want to visit Mitsuwa because you can easily get a pre-prepared meal or something from the food court for roughly a couple bucks to an average of $8 (and no tipping is required).

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This is a huge draw to Mitsuwa Market which is the “food court” (Torrance pictured).

Pros: The pricing for the market isn’t the most competitive, but the food court is the big draw to the marketplace. “Food court” doesn’t necessarily conjure up positive thoughts for most (my first thoughts are Sbarro, Hot Dog on a Stick, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High), but Mitsuwa has a good one. The popularity is partially due to restaurants like Santouka Ramen that have upwards of 2k reviews and a 4.5-star rating on Yelp. If that isn’t enough for you to want to check the place out, some stores also have a bookstore, stationery store, toy shop, video store, to a hair salon.

Cons: The Torrance location has ample parking, but Los Angeles and Costa Mesa are short on it during peak hours. Lack of parking can make parking a challenge when you’re looking to have a quick lunch or dinner, so you’ll want to factor that in, along with the fact that the food court closes a half-hour earlier than the market which makes for a short window on dinner for you late night diners.

Image Gallery: Mitsuwa, Torrance and Costa Mesa

  • Headquarters: Torrance, CA
  • Founded: 1998
  • Number of locations in SoCal: 6
  • Locations (link to Google Places/Maps):Torrance (pictured), Irvine, Costa Mesa (pictured), San Gabriel, Santa Monica, San Diego, San Jose, Chicago, Plano, New Jersey, Waikiki.
  • Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, Food Court: 11am to 8:30 pm.
  • Notes: later in the evening, they discount a lot of their pre-prepared meals and sushi down by as much as a $1 or more, woo hoo! Saving money is good, but the best part is the quality. Mitsuwa does some of the best sushi out of any of the grocery store chains.
  • Website: www.mitsuwa.com
  • Online Store: no
  • Social: Facebook, Instagram

Nijiya

This should sum up the Nijiya experience in their own (incoherent) words “In 1986, San Diego, California, all started in hopes of contributing to the local society through Japanese food, and make this wonderful Japanese taste known to the people of America. It was long, long before Organic Ingredients healthy became the trend of American culinary scene.”

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Nijiya owns their own farm that grows organic vegetables.

Pros:  you have to dig to find this, but Nijiya owns and operates their own farm in San Diego to grow their own “organic” vegetables (not sure as to what degree they are organic). Aside from that, a lot of their products have a healthy or organic focus such as with their pre-prepared sushi, it comes with an organic soy sauce packet.

Cons: An American business that started in San Diego in 1986, yet the English used on their corporate website in 2017 doesn’t reflect that. Not only is the copywriting an issue, but this market just seems to be behind because of the old and antiquated website which isn’t web 2.0 (mobile browser compliant). To make things a little harder, the website is in both Japanese and English, but they have it mixed together which can make navigating the site somewhat cluttered.

Image Gallery: Nijiya Torrance


Seiwa

This is the new kid on the block, but you’re not dealing with a noob here because this chain is owned by Hidejiro Matsu who is the founder of Marukai. His first location in Costa Mesa may have a limited selection, but if you’re looking to buy in bulk, or you’re looking for some killer deals, Seiwa is your spot.

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Just some of the goods they have placed in front, near the checkout.

Pros: If you never really purchased that many frozen foods, shopping at Seiwa will make you want to reconsider starting (it did for me). Frozen goods can be extremely convenient and cost effective when buying proteins like chicken, pork, beef, and fish (so far, I’ve done salmon, salmon collar, eel, to mackerel) in bulk where you can package individual portions for future use.

Cons: The newcomer of the group, so they’re still making tweaks to the business like with the Costa Mesa location which has been nicknamed the “Japanese Costco.” Unfortunately, they made some recent changes to that store to turn it into another “me too” location with more pre-prepared foods and non-frozen meats. That might be in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, but they still fall short when compared to Tokyo Central’s variety of goods and is only couple blocks away. Mitsuwa is also only 2.8 miles/8 mins away, and they just can’t compete against their food court or special food events.

Image Gallery: Seiwa, Costa Mesa

  • Headquarters: Torrance, CA
  • Founded in: 1986
  • Number of locations in SoCal: 2
  • Locations (link to Google Places/Maps): Costa Mesa, Torrance, Houston
  • Note: They have a “1.5 lb, Wild Caught Opilio frozen snow crab” that used to be around $10-11, but they recently raised the price to $14.99 (almost a $4 increase). No clue as to why it was raised, but I suppose they’re still working things out although they always have stellar deals like the one with Kona Coffee which they sell for an everyday low price of .88 to .99 versus the competitor pricing of $1.29 to $1.49.
  • Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 9:00 pm
  • Website: www.seiwamarket.com
  • Online Store: no
  • Social: Facebook (Houston only)

Tokyo Central

Originally Marukai, but in 2013 several stores were re-branded and remodeled as Tokyo Central because Marukai joined the highly successful Japanese based company, the Don Quijote Group. That partnership led to significant improvements in the interior, in-store experience, and a massive increase of goods of not only food, but also toys, household products, makeup, and more.

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If you want to go to the one place that has it all, this is the spot…well and Marukai (same or not the same?)

Pros: If you aren’t a native Japanese speaker, there is one major reason you’ll want to come here over any other market which is their in-store labeling for probably almost all their products is in good ole English. Since most of the products carried were meant for the Japanese domestic market, Tokyo Cental provides a brief description of the product, so that you don’t have to rely on the look of the packaging or the required FDA ingredients label on the backside of all the goods.

Cons: Before Tokyo Central acquisition of Marukai, the food court had never really measured up to the one inside Mitsuwa. Now with the entirely new Tokyo Central Delicatessen (sorry no cold cuts or cheese here. Only “unusual or foreign prepared foods”) and a buffet line with all their pre-cooked food and sushi offerings, it’s still a huge hit’or’miss with a lot more “miss.” Taking on a WholeFoods like approach but with an odd menu and without the foot traffic results in a lot of food sitting around. It doesn’t help that their sushi offerings are very mediocre. The only redeeming change they had made lately was adding Toraji Ramen to the Costa Mesa location.

Image Gallery: Tokyo Central, Costa Mesa

  • Headquarters: Torrance, CA
  • Founded in: 1986
  • Number of locations in SoCal: 5
  • Locations (link to Google Places/Maps):Costa Mesa, Torrance, West Covina, Pacific Square, San Diego.
  • Note: They have “Tokyo Central” and “Main” stores, but they don’t bother letting you know what the differences are between the two. Maybe one day, they’ll decide to officially disclose what the differences are vs. making you have to figure that one out for yourself.
  • General Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 10:00 pm.
  • Website: www.tokyocentral.com
  • Online Store: yes, tokyocentral.com
  • Social: none

If you have a favorite market, please let me know.

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