Jacqueline Chao
A regular customer purchases a homemade bento. Oto’s handcrafted bentos and specialty plates, such as curry rice, are the most popular dishes.

In the “Shop Till You Drop” series, staffers visited grocery stores and markets that offer goods from around the world. Check back tomorrow to see senior Nicole Wolkov’s review of Neroe’s Bakery. 

Walking through the aisles of Oto’s Marketplace (4990 Freeport Blvd.), you may find it hard to believe that you’re still in Sacramento.

Opened by Ted Oto in 1956, Oto’s is a market that sells high-quality specialty goods from Japan as well as local and organic meats and produce.

It’s been about five years since I stopped shopping here regularly, but this shop still has the same charm.

As I scan one shelf in search of my favorite rice seasonings (furikake), I decide to grab just a few chopsticks for sophomore Jacqueline Chao and myself before we eat.

Widow Mollie Oto, who currently cooks at the store, described her husband’s original plan.

“(Ted’s) vision was to have a store that he owned,” Mollie said. “He, (a butcher), wanted something stable for the kids to take over, if they wanted to, in the future.

“When he first took over, (the store) was on Fruitridge (Road). Competition-wise, (we) couldn’t compete with the big stores. But then he went into (Asian) markets, which were primarily Japanese, and we didn’t face the chain store competition anymore.”

Shopping, you’ll hear grandmothers quietly speaking Japanese and diligently searching for the udon noodles that their sons like the most.

Oto’s isn’t big, so it has a cozy feel. But just like Japan, there is variety within the store’s rice-bag-lined walls.

Take a look at the massive sections of Japanese snacks.

There’s mochi (processed rice ball desserts) in every color, instant noodles that’ll put your Maruchan ramen to shame, Costco-sized packs of rice crackers, frozen tofu and natto (fermented soy beans).

Interested in making homemade sushi and sashimi?

Stop by the Little Daiso section that sells only goods from the Daiso (the Japanese Dollar Tree) chain stores for some sushi rollers.

There you can pick up virtually anything – Japanese stationery, plastic onigiri (rice ball snacks with meat, fish or filling) makers or bamboo sushi rollers – for only $1.50 apiece.

For some, the bright colors and cutesy Japanese fonts might be a little much, but have no fear if you feel light-headed and need a quick bite on your shopping journey.

Guests can enjoy sushi made in house by sushi chef Yamamoto.

Or if seafood isn’t for you, the beef is also inexpensive yet of top quality.

Or pick up a fresh, pre-made bento from Mollie herself, which you can either take home or microwave and eat in a designated area near the exit.

Then, after you’ve gorged yourself and emptied your wallet, take a once-through of the store again to see what you’ve missed.

By Chardonnay Needler

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