Saturday, December 13, 2008

Barrio Chino prices, what's in the secret sauce?

Because I find Chinese restaurants in BA are pretty average and Japanese restaurants are below average and over priced, I have been doing quite a bit of Asian style cooking at home. I don't live very close to Barrio Chino (China town), so I try to do all my shopping there in one big swoop. Since supplies of essentials were running low, yesterday I made my shopping run. Barrio Chino is located in Belgrano and is quite small consisting of approximately 2 or 3 blocks. Being so small, it should not be such a surprise that those early entrepreneurs must know each other well which impacts what products are offered and how they are priced. (photo from
Upon arrival in Barrio Chino, it looks like the consumer is in control because there are several shops to choose from. The most popular ( I think it was the first market) is Casa China. Casa China looks like your typical chinese market: stuffed shelves and the pungent fresh vegetable/fish/meat section in the back. They also have a 2nd floor with some kitchen items normally only open on the weekends. This market was successful so they set up another local also called Casa China one block down. It's a bit smaller, a much smaller selection of pantry items and frozen foods, but recently expanded and has a bag your own grain section. Then there is Asia Oriental on Mendoza. Asia Oriental is bigger than either Casa China and has more of Super Market feel to it with a larger quantity and selection of pantry items, fresh vegetables, fresh meat/fish, dried noodles, tofu and a food bar which serves soups or stir frys to order. I also noticed a brand new market just opened up a couple doors down to the original Casa China called "Ichi-Ban". Ichi-Ban is a Japanese word (meaning number one) so one would think it carries more Japanese food items. Unlike the chinese markets, the place is spotless, but I think that is just because there was just me and one other gringo in there. From what I could tell they carry all the same stuff, except at super inflated prices. Maybe they are hoping for Japanese tourists?

And this leads me to the point of this post. What I find amusing are the price differentials between the same items that I purchase. They run from miniscule to ridiculous. I needed soy sauce and found a 2 liter jug of Fumeiga soy sauce which was priced at 23 pesos in Casa China was priced at 19 pesos in Asia Oriental and a whopping 38 pesos in Ichi-Ban. Sake was another item you have to watch out for. I bought a big bottle of sake last winter in Asia Oriental for 50 pesos, the same bottle in Casa China was 80 pesos. I rechecked the prices this go around and Asia Oriental had raised the price to 64 pesos and Casa China had lowered their price to 70 pesos. A hot pot that I had also bought last winter in Asia Oriental cost 80 pesos, similar hot pots in Casa China were well over 120 pesos. Other low cost items had small price differences such as the frozen gyoza (9 pesos in Asia Oriental, 8.5 pesos in Casa China) and Dashi (Fish powder) which was 14 pesos in Asia Oriental and 10 pesos in Casa China.

So what's the secret to shopping in Barrio Chino?
The difference to me is psychological. For some reason I expect to be able to find great deals in China town. Unfortunately, the great deals are few and far between. So shoppers really have to be on your toes. What barrio chino offers is a selection of must have pantry items that are difficult to impossible to find in regular super markets, a wider selection of asian veggies some that are also unavailable in regular supermarkets like lemon grass, bokchoy and others that are available, but are much fresher and lower priced in barrio chino such as hakusai (Napa cabbage), daikon radish, cilantro, a plethora of mushrooms, herbs like romero and thyme etc.. (I haven't had the courage to buy the fresh fish/meat yet). Imported Japanese products are expensive, so I substitute when possible like the big bags of locally produced soba and somen noodles in the photo. They are not as good as the Japanese ones, but at a fraction of the price, they get the job done. In the end, Barrio Chino is about selection, not about price which makes it no different from any other shopping area. You need to hunt around for the bargains.

What tips do you have to share about Barrio Chino?


SaltShaker said...

I think it's hit and miss. Last week I did a price comparison on about a dozen items I needed and all of them were cheapest at Ichiban. There's just not a lot of sense to the pricing at any of them, and it often varies from week to week if not simply day to day.

Jonathan said...

Pricing over there truly is mind boggling then. If you want to be budget conscience, you have to pre-shop check the prices in the stores and then go back and make the purchase. I hope they don't start changing prices inter-day!

Thanks for the comment about Ichi-Ban. I had written them off. I'll have to give them another shot next time..and I'll pack my abacus. :-)