There's no greater testament to the ethnographic diversity of the northern suburbs than Niles's Fresh Farms International Market (5740 W. Touhy, Niles, myfreshfarms.com), featuring products from at least five continents. Those numbed by the galaxies of banality that are Dominick's and Jewel should prepare to have their doors of perception blown from their hinges as they wander among the mountains of produce, the oceanic-depth seafood department, the deli counter with its meats, cheeses, and prepared and preserved foods from around the globe, and towering aisles of international eats.
While FFIM makes an admirable attempt to be all things to all people, there's a lot to be said for specialization. What follows are a half-dozen niche markets in the burbs that do what they do better than anyone.
Hmart and Mitsuwa
What does it tell you that the two titans of Asian food retail are located in the northwest suburbs? When the Korean superstore Hmart opened in 2006 in Niles it seemed to signal the last gasps of Chicago's Koreatown, which subsequently witnessed the death of two important groceries, Clark Market and Arirang. Even if they could have competed with Hmart's housewares department, panchan bar, food court, tofu and kimchi plant, bakery, multispecies aquarium, and aisle after aisle of imported Korean dry goods, they didn't have a prayer against what may be the largest and most varied produce department in the state, which attracts shoppers of all ethnicities. 801 Civic Center Drive, Niles, hmart.com.
What Hmart is for Koreans, Mitsuwa is for the more established northern suburban Japanese community. There's nowhere else to wander spotless aisles of sashimi-grade fish, sake, Pocky, fresh wasabi, rice, soy sauces, and tsukemono—and if you can find a better bowl of ramen in the midwest than at the food court's Santouka, I'll eat your sandals boiled in tonkotsu stock. 100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights, mitsuwa.com.
Alef Sausage & Deli
In far northwest Mundelein, Alef Sausage & Deli isn't merely an outlet for the company's dry fermented and cooked sausages, bolognas, and smoked Russian meats, but a full-service takeout operation with an astonishing selection of baked goods, prepared foods, smoked fish, frozen dumplings, imported Georgian mineral water, preserves, pickles, sweets, and oddball items like imitation camel's milk yogurt. 356 Townline, Mundelein, alefsausage.com.
Ream's Elburn Market
Cured Meat Hall of Famer Randy Ream's butcher shop and sausage operation would be a gem in any major metropolitan city. Instead, it's destination driving to far west suburban Kane County for ring bologna, brats, wieners, hurka, jerky, bacon, and all sorts of fresh, smoked and cured meats. 128 N. Main, Elburn, elburnmarket.com.
Grand Duke's Deli
The tiny deli next door to Grand Duke's Restaurant is packed with Baltic imports like wine, spirits and bitters, soups, sweets, honey, frozen wild cranberries, and crayfish from Armenia's Lake Sevan, plus a selection of Lithuanian sausages, salads, and cheeses, and a big barrel of pickles. 6312 S. Harlem, Summit, granddukesrestaurant.com.
This Irish market is your go-to source for hard-to-find British imports like the full line of Walker's Crisps (roast chicken, pickled onion, prawn cocktail), candy bars (Aero, Fry's Turkish Delight, Cadbury Picnic), and Potter-esque essentials like HP Sauce, Ambrosia Devon Custard, and Lyle's Black Treacle. Soda bread, black and white pudding, Irish bacon, and corned beef are all imported from the company's Chicago processing plant. 7959 159th, Tinley Park, winstonsmarket.net.