People don't use the word "love" very much when it comes to grocery stores. But like virtually all the customers of tiny Nak's Oriental Market located on a shady side street in Menlo Park, I love this place. Love, love, love, actually, echoing a typical customer comment online. There's really nothing else like it, from the eclectic offerings -- many just not available elsewhere or not all in the same place -- to the caring, attentive, generous attitude of friendly proprietor Ken Kurose, who rerouted his career in order to carry on with the store after his father's failing health threatened its closure.
Going into Nak's is like a non-fiction version of the "Cheers" bar on TV, where people know your name and care about making you happy. Curious about an item? Ken is likely to rip open a package and let you try some with no purchase commitment. I'll get to the story of Ken and his family in a moment but first I want to talk about the things I buy there.
Nak's is the only place I've regularly found pristine, sushi-quality hamachi (aka yellowtail) and membrane-free tuna, which are among a few raw fish items that show up twice weekly. And since the store gets in whole hamachi and cuts it on premises, one can buy silky, rich belly cuts as well as kama, the collar. Before I knew about Nak's, I only saw this delicacy -- for a pretty price -- in better Japanese restaurants, lightly salted and roasted. It's heavenly, with a juicy, meaty texture and terrific flavor. If you call in advance, you can have Ken set some aside because Nak's doesn't get much.
The usual sushi items are available here like good-quality pickled ginger and soy, including (after a pre-order) terrific house-prepared sushi rice. The market has fresh shiso -- that cumin-smelling Japanese herb often used in sushi. And thanks to Ken -- and before him, his dad -- I've discovered some obscure items I now can't live without.
Certainly, Nak's has wasabi powder, but what I now buy instead --"better than powder," Ken's dad told me a few years ago -- is a divine Japanese product called Kizami Wasabi that is fresh shredded wasabi root marinated in a little soy that comes frozen in small packages. Its multidimensional flavor is way beyond the powdered stuff. I mix some of it with crème fraîche to make an instant and outstandingly delicious sauce for seafood.
Thanks to the caring proprietors at Nak's, I've discovered a superior brand of Thai fish sauce and other Oriental ingredients. Full disclosure: I usually don't make standard Asian preparations like sushi and the like with the things I buy here; I use these items for experimental fusion cooking, but good ingredients help any cooking style.
I've bought marvelous, fresh, Japanese-grown, highly prized matsutake mushrooms at Nak's that Ken sold me for an itty-bitty price. He'll bring in things he thinks his customers might like such as Korean ginseng root and ghost peppers (the hottest in the world, reportedly). Nothing seems too exotic, such as hoshigaki, which are difficult-to-find, hand-massaged, dried persimmons with an incomparable taste. When he was still alive, Steve Jobs used to come to Nak's to buy them in quantity.
Impossibly fragrant kaffir lime leaves, fresh tofu from a plant in San Jose, fresh galangal root (Thai ginger) -- these are just some of the special things available here. I've been talking to Ken about finding some fresh wasabi root and fresh yuzu, that uniquely aromatic Japanese citrus that is so hard to find outside four-star restaurant menus. I have no doubt he's looking for sources this very minute.
A recent addition is seasonal tropical fruit like mangosteen, lychee, golden kiwi, dragonfruit and rambutan. After a request, Ken even carried durian -- that Southeast Asian fruit with a smell like a ripe compost pile -- before his neighbors started complaining.
Beyond the short, cluttered grocery aisles -- Nak's contains only about 700 square feet of space -- are irresistible take-out edibles like dim sum and pork buns that Ken gets in Chinatown in San Francisco. His assistant, Sergio, is making fantastic fresh sushi on alternating Saturdays, utilizing skills learned from years spent in a South Bay Japanese restaurant. Ken often happily hands out samples to anyone walking in.
This may be called an "Oriental" market but Nak's probably has one of the largest selections of Dutch packaged foods in the region. Beginning years ago to support a customer request, the supply now takes up a couple of rows and Dutch residents of the Bay Area regularly stream through the store to buy the crackers, licorice, chocolates and sweets that make them homesick. One can find odds and ends of Indonesian, Chinese and other grocery items in this many-sided little market.
Nak's opened in 1968 and was named for its initial proprietor, Fred Nakamura. Twelve years later, recent Japanese immigrant Seikichi Kurose took it over from his brother-in-law, Nakamura, keeping the name unchanged. Eventually working with his wife, Ikie, in the store, Kurose lived nearby and practiced a humble but incredibly warm style of customer service that built loyalty that has lasted decades.
Kurose was known as "Sam" to his customers because, he once told me with a twinkle, the mispronunciation of his name by well-meaning Western patrons came out sounding like the word for male genitalia in Japanese. Or maybe he was pulling my leg.
Sam ran the store from 1980 on, dealing with high rent, a neglectful landlord (the scuffed old floors have never been replaced) and the usual economic vicissitudes that can be particularly acute for small businesses. He eventually remortgaged his house and took out additional loans a few years ago to keep it afloat. The stress, his age -- he's currently in his 70s --- and an undiagnosed malady caused him to collapse in mid-2013.
American-born son Ken had been working in high tech, then as a successful antiques dealer, but seeing the enormous community reaction to the possibility of closing the store -- with petitions and emails of support flying around -- made him feel that he was honor-bound to continue the operation of beloved Nak's, which has now been around for 46 years.
"I give the service my parents always gave," he explains. Since he literally grew up in the store, Ken spent his life seeing how his mom and dad treated their customers, with politeness and extra care.
But it hasn't been an easy financial path given his costs and continued worry about his father's health. That hasn't kept him from focusing on customers, however. If just one customer requests an item, "I buy it," says Ken. "I know you don't make money that way but I do it. I saw my dad do it that way. If they really, really want it, I want to make them happy."
In an era of supermarkets and discount grocery stores with bored, inattentive staffs who seem to look forward more to the end of their shift than the needs of their customers, Nak's is a venerated anomaly. It would be distressing not to be able to buy the things I can find only at Nak's if this delightful, somewhat ramshackle little store were no longer around. But it's downright depressing to contemplate a time when such classic mom-and-pop neighborhood treasures might become extinct.