Back in 2007, I came across an interesting article by Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times. Bittman suggested that home cooks should forego the purchase of high-end, expensive cooking equipment and instead buy the gear that real professional cooks use (when they’re not appearing on television).


The place to shop, Bittman said, was restaurant supply stores.


For some time, I’d been walking past two restaurant supply stores located side-by-side on St. Mary’s in Lavaca, but it had never occurred to me that I should stop in and shop. Back then, I was more likely to visit Williams Sonoma and gasp at the price of Calphalon pans.


But Bittman’s article convinced me to give these two local stores a try, and I haven’t returned to Williams Sonoma since.

WHAT TO BUY


Early last week, I took a walk through each store, guided with tips from Pam at Mission and Jim at Ace Mart. They each pointed out some things that are good choices for home chefs.


First, some personal favorites — theirs and mine.


Texas Waffle Iron

Pam showed me a waffle maker that produces Texas-shaped waffles. Shape aside, a nice feature of this waffle maker is that it has an alert light that tells you when your waffle is done. It sells for about $40.


OXO ‘leave-in’ digital thermometer

Jim loves the OXO digital ‘leave-in’ thermometer. Insert the probe into your turkey or roast, put it in the oven, and monitor the temperature from your kitchen counter. You’ll get an alarm when the food is ready. You can set the alarm temperature directly, or you can instead tell the thermometer what you’re cooking, and it will choose an appropriate chef-recommended and USDA-recommended temperature for you. It sells for about $42.


Lodge cast iron

I love cast iron pans, and I have a bunch of them — multiple frying pans, a grill pan, a dutch oven, and a combo cooker. They’re tough, reliable, can go in the oven, and — when well-seasoned — they're easy to clean. You can spend big bucks at Central Market on Smithy artisan cast iron, or go with the been-around-since-the-dawn-of-time (or 1896, to be precise) Lodge cast iron, carried at affordable prices by both Ace Mart and Mission. All my cast iron is Lodge, purchased at our local restaurant supply stores.


Aluminum pots and pans

Every kitchen needs a basic set of aluminum pots, pans, and lids. Both stores carry a wide assortment, from very small sizes to cooking-for-your-big-extended-family size. You really need to go into the stores and check them out in person. Oh, and don’t forget to look at the woks.


Knives

Both stores carry a huge assortment of knives — knives for different purposes and knives for different budgets. Like the pots and pans, this is a section of the store you need to visit in person, but, just to provide a sampling, I did a search on Mercer knives on the websites of both stores. Their search engines work differently, so the search results aren’t necessarily comparable, but both lists (Mission’s and Ace’s) give you a feel for the broad range of knives available from just that single manufacturer.


Thermometers

There are all kinds of thermometers available at both stores. An oven thermometer is inexpensive and lets you know the real temperature of your oven, which is often not the same as the temperature you’ve set. Instant read thermometers let you know the temperature of meat you’re roasting. And, of course, there’s the OXO ‘leave-in’ probe thermometer that Jim uses.


Mixing bowls

Stainless steel mixing bowls are a durable and lightweight must-have. I recently purchased a big one for mixing large quantities of bread dough. It holds 13 quarts and measures 16 inches across the top, so it’s pretty big, but it’s also light-weight, which makes it easy to handle and wash up. Ace Mart carries Vollrath bowls in a variety of sizes, and Mission points to its line of Winco bowls with non-skid bases.


Bun trays

Bun trays are another of Jim’s recommendations. They come in lots of sizes, including full size (which won’t fit in a residential oven), two-thirds size (which will), and even sizes down to 9.5 x 6.5 inches (one-eighth size). Commercial bun trays are good for baking, roasting and broiling, and, Jim says, they only get better with use. They release better, he says. And, he points out, they’re meant to get dirty.


Cutting boards

Judging by the assortment carried by each store, you can’t have too many cutting boards. They come in different materials and sizes, but most significantly, they come in multiple colors. That’s not just for coordinating with your backsplash; Pam explains that using different colors for different foods protects against accidental cross-contamination. If you go the multi-board route, you can get a rack to store them all upright, side-by-side. And both Ace Mart and Mission also carry high-end John Boos maple wood cutting boards; they not only work well, they look nice, too.


Other items

And it’s worth browsing to see all the choices you’ve got for such things as pizza peels, colanders, ramekins, scales, measuring cups, food-safe storage, and bar tools. And yes, oven mitts.

Both of these neighborhood stores, Ace Mart Restaurant Supply and Mission Restaurant Supply, are San Antonio natives, although they’ve both now spread out across Texas.


I spoke recently with Jim Pieper, Ace Mart’s Vice President for Retail, and with Pam Lawrence, Director of Marketing for Mission Restaurant Supply. They each told me that, while restaurants are their core market, home cooks are also important. Home cooks make up eight to ten percent of Ace Mart’s business, Jim told me. ‘That’s not insignificant,’ he added.


 In the back of both stores, there’s all the big commercial equipment that only restaurants need. But up front in each place, there’s a big selection of things that are used by both restaurant chefs and home chefs: pots, pans, knives, scales, tongs, mixing bowls, colanders, bun trays, spatulas, whisks, ladles, cast iron, rolling pins, measuring cups, cutting boards, and a variety of bar tools. (I would have put oven mitts on that list, too, since both stores carry them, but Pam pointed out to me that restaurant chefs don’t usually bother with mitts. ‘They just grab a towel or something,’ she said.)


Oh, and if you want to really look the part, you can pick up some very nice chef’s shirts, jackets, and hats.


A key point that both Jim and Pam made when they spoke with me: The gear they sell is commercial grade. It’s meant to be used and used hard. 'It’s just better quality than you’ll get in a big box store,' Pam said.


THE STORES

Both of these store got their start in this part of town, and both of them have since expanded across Texas. Here’s some basic information about each of them.


ACE MART

1220 South Saint Mary's Street (but the store spans the width of the block, all the way over to Presa)

(210) 224-0082
Monday - Friday: 8:30 AM - 5:30 PM
Saturday: 9:00 AM - 2:00 PM


————


Ace Mart is now in its third generation of family ownership, Jim Pieper told me.


Norman ‘Gus’ Gustafson bought the business in 1975. In the early years, it was located on South Flores, diagonally across César Chávez from today’s H-E-B Market, in a building that — renovated and significantly enlarged — is now a Hampton Inn hotel.


The company opened a second store in Austin, managed by Gus’s son Paul, and eventually they expanded to their total of fifteen stores today, including outlets in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth.


Today, the South Flores store is gone, replaced by the present store on St. Mary’s (previously a Handy Andy grocery store), and the corporate offices have moved to a facility north of downtown, on Austin Highway. A point of pride at the St. Mary’s store is the mural, painted by local artist Robert Tatum, that covers the exterior north wall. That mural was present when Ace Mart moved in, and rather than paint over it, Ace Mart asked Tatum to restore it.


The core of Ace Mart’s business is small restaurants. However, Ace Mart also has an institutional sales team that deals with franchise restaurants, schools, and big companies, and, of course, they also cater to home cooks in their retail stores.


Because it’s in the neighborhood, it makes sense to visit the store and browse, but you can also find an item on the Ace Mart website, order it there, and pick it up at the store. If the local store doesn’t have a particular item, Jim says, trucks run between the stores multiple times per week, so your item can usually be pulled from stock elsewhere and brought to St. Mary’s within two or three days.


MISSION

1126 S. St. Mary's Street (but the store spans the width of the block, all the way over to Presa, and the store entrance faces Presa)

(210) 354-0690
Monday - Friday: 8 AM - 5 PM
Saturday: 9 AM - 3 PM


————


Mission Restaurant Supply’s core business is, as the name suggests, restaurants. However, it takes home chefs very seriously. In fact, Pam points out, Mission is doing some marketing aimed squarely at home chefs. One example is a partnership with San Antonio tv personality Tanji Patton to produce cooking demonstrations that focus on tools for home cooks. The first two demos, featuring Mission’s chef Thurman Love, are online now.


Mission is a long-time, family-owned San Antonio business. The Lewis family started the business about thirty-four years ago as an ice company, but it grew into a full- service restaurant supply company. Today it operates five stores in San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, McAllen, and Corpus Christi. The corporate headquarters are right here in the neighborhood, in the same building as the St. Mary’s store.


Pam emphasizes Mission’s involvement in the community, telling me that the company donates fifteen percent of after-tax profits to local charities. In keeping with its industry focus, since 2008 the company has funded seventeen full scholarships to St. Philips culinary school.


I’d recommend stopping in at the St. Mary’s store to browse, but you can also browse and shop online at the Mission website.

Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.

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Some snapshots at the Ace Mart Restaurant Supply Store on South St. Mary's

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