Market an "unexpected gem"
Its name and location – The Market at La Comisaria, adjacent to the Seventh Street commissary that supplies food trucks – suggest a Mexican foods store.
And while the year-old business has a Tecate beer ad in the front window, a carniceria and a great variety of El Mexicano spices and other products, the store is much more.
When the owners of the food truck commissary chose to expand into the space next door, they initially envisioned a strictly Latino foods store, said market manager Patrick Chinn. But Isleton native Chinn, who met one of the investors while working at Rinaldi’s Market, a mom-and-pop store in Linden, envisioned more when approached about managing the Modesto grocery.
“I just felt like we needed to be different, and he agreed,” Chinn said Monday in his office, occasionally stepping into the store to greet customers. (“How you ladies doing today? Good to see you,” he said, fist bumping one of the shoppers.) “We didn’t think there was anything wrong with trying to have Hispanic goods as well as hopefully the best steak in town and the best craft beer selection we could possibly imagine.”
And so The Market at La Comisaria opened its doors in July 2015 as “kind of an unexpected hidden gem,” said regular customer Walt Cooley.
“Unexpected” captures the store’s essence well. Inside its doors are surprises at almost every turn. Several refrigerated cases of craft beer. Other coolers with a variety of hard ciders. Local products including Modesto’s Nutcher milk and Nicolau Farms artisan cheeses, Hilmar’s Green Acres Farmstead eggs and breads from the popular Genova Bakery in Stockton.
Craft beer and the momentum it has in our economy has driven me to search for unique beers. I deal with the main two to three distributors here, then have to go search for the rest of them, so there are four to five other distributors I work with. You have to do your homework.
Patrick Chinn, manager of The Market at La Comisaria
The market is competitively priced – “just a matter of us trying to make friends,” Chinn said. Ears of corn are bagged three for $1. Quarts of Nutcher milk in root beer, orange and cotton candy flavors are $3.50, about the same as at bigger supermarkets. In the carniceria and butcher counter at the rear of the market, boneless and skinless chicken breasts are $1.79 a pound. Black Angus tri-tip is $6.49 a pound. A variety of house-made sausage links are $5.99 a pound.
The sausage flavors rotate, and those available recently included chipotle apricot, jalapeño cheddar and “Grandma’s special.” The latter, which includes pork, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, water chestnuts and green onion, is Chinn’s take on a dish his paternal grandmother made.
“She made this steamed ground pork dish. It’s a poor man’s meal but it’s something super comforting to me and reminds me of them. I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I put that in a sausage?’” he said, comparing the ingredients to a dim sum filling.
Exotic as it sounds, “Grandma’s special” could be cooked and wrapped in a bun like any other sausage, Chinn said. “Some customers have asked for it as bulk sausage rather than in a casing. My dad would throw an egg on top of that and maybe have it with toast or something.”
Word of the market’s sausages – and craft beer – is what led Cooley there. “A co-worker here at the store told me about it,” said Cooley, a pharmacist at Boies' Medical Center Pharmacy in Turlock. “We were talking about sausages one day. We both like beer, too. I was down there within a week.”
Cooley and his wife, Leslie, live across town from the market but usually combine shopping there with a visit to the Modesto Certified Farmers Market. “The bacon-wrapped stuffed mushrooms are out of this world,” Walt Cooley said. “We like the ceviche, too – they have it fresh several times a week.”
He said Chinn and his staff have been great help when dinnertime was approaching and the Cooleys needed some inspiration.
The service is very impressive, Patrick is great. He really tries to get to know the people coming in. Within two times of us being in there, he knew our names. He’s good at suggesting things like a beer if I’m looking for something special.
Walt Cooley, customer
That’s the kind of thing Chinn loves to hear. Dinnertime was an important part of his childhood in Isleton, where his family owned and operated the Quong Wo Sing general store for nearly 100 years. The family home was behind the business, where his father worked every day of the week, Chinn recalled. “My grandparents cooked every day at 5. There always was a five- or six-course meal. ... I was rich in exposure to food. I felt so spoiled with meals, it was ridiculous.”
If his store can help today’s busy families gather around the table for a home-cooked dinner, he’s glad, Chinn said. “If there’s something ready to go for them and they can put it in a pan and still show their kids that a quality meal prepared at home should be a staple, we can help that process.”
Going over some of the store specialties – kalbi beef ribs marinated in-house, asparagus beef in black bean sauce, bacon-wrapped asparagus and other vegetables – Chinn sums up his target customers simply as Californians. “I think we all – everyone, no matter what ethnicity they are – has had al pastor and carne asada and also has had some of those Asian-influenced dishes,” said the 43-year-old, who is Chinese on his father’s side but Irish-English on his mother’s. “That’s just our makeup now, and that’s what leads us to believe we don’t have to pigeonhole our customers. We’re Californians.”
Chinn started working in his family’s general store at age 8 to give his dad a day off. In addition to working at Rinaldi’s for seven years, he also was “a disciple of Save Mart for almost 10 years.”
He loves interacting with customers and running The Market at La Comisaria, he said, but calls curating the craft beer section his “focused passion.”
“I think we are in the golden age of craft beer if you look at the statistics on how many breweries are opening up … they’re definitely taking away from the domestic big Budweiser and Coors drinkers,” Chinn said. “It’s all about taste, not quantity. It’s not about your 30-packs; it’s not about going home and drinking a 12-pack.” With craft brews, “a good buzz is just a byproduct of the artists who are putting their work inside a bottle,” he said.
The market has been “discovered” by area craft-beer aficionados, Chinn said, but his challenge is to have it discovered for all it has to offer. He wants to do some “out-of-the-box” things with olive oil, start offering deli sandwiches using Genova Bakery breads, perhaps do various tastings. He’s already purchased a nitro tap to serve cold-brewed coffee from San Diego’s Modern Times brewery.
“We’re striving – not to our goals yet, but we’re listening to customers and evolving,” he said. “We have to be unique here. People have to want to come over to Seventh Street. I think being average is not going to make that happen.”
The market is at 500 Seventh St. Learn more at www.themarketmodesto.com.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
About the name
The Market at La Comisaria was meant to attach the store to its sister company, the Seventh Street commissary that supplies food trucks. What store manager Patrick Chinn – not a Spanish speaker – didn’t know what that “la comisaria” is not Spanish for “commissary” but rather for “police station.”
“With most people, it doesn’t come up at all, but I have a friend who was puzzled,” Chinn said. When informed of the mistranslation, “I freaked out about a day and a half, thinking I had to change the name. But a lot of people said to just calm down, it’s catchy.”