Monterey Park’s Ai Hoa Supermarket dominates the neighborhood as if it were some grand Oriental palace, its coffers heaped with treasure for those who equate riches with the pleasures of eating Asian food.
The name, Ai Hoa, is Vietnamese, and the market stocks everything needed for Vietnamese cookery. But it is also well equipped with Chinese ingredients and has an excellent assortment of Indonesian, Thai, Filipino and Japanese foods.
Many of the products attest to the era when Vietnam was under French rule. There are Champagne biscuits and petite beurre cookies imported from France, croissants, baguettes of French bread and the French rolls that are essential for the Vietnamese sandwich called banh mi thit ngoui. This cross-cultural treat is spread with pate and mayonnaise, stuffed with Vietnamese luncheon meats and garnished with marinated carrot and white radish, cilantro and slices of green chile.
French-style coffees share shelf space with American brands, and housewares include the one-cup coffee filters (made in Taiwan) that you’ll see in Vietnamese restaurants, dripping an intense brew into squat glasses. To make ca phe sua, this strong extract is diluted with hot water from a Thermos and sweetened with condensed milk. For ca phe sua da, it is served over ice.
French names are common on Vietnamese foods. For example, the translucent circles of rice paper used to wrap spring rolls (cha gio) are labeled galettes de riz as well as banh trang, their Vietnamese name. These rice papers also accompany a number of dishes the way tortillas go with Mexican food. Dry and brittle, they must be brushed with water to make them pliable, and Ai Hoa carries a novel plastic rack that allows mass dampening and keeps the thin sheets from sticking to each other.
Typical of products bidding for the Vietnamese trade is Kimlan soy sauce from Taiwan. This company has added Vietnamese designations to its dark and light soy sauces. The dark sauce is si dau loai dam, the light is si dau loai nhe dac biet. Taiwan is also exporting crisp, thin “French cookies,” which have been on special at Ai Hoa for $1.39 a package.
A curry powder packed in Garden Grove offers a recipe in English, Chinese characters and Vietnamese. But only Vietnamese instructions are provided for a flour blend used to make the crisp pancake banh xeo. Ai Hoa also carries flour formulated for Vietnamese-style rice noodles, but it seems hardly worth the trouble to make the noodles when they are readily available fresh or dried. In the section that carries the fresh rice noodles you will also find rice sticks. Other noodles are packed in solid sheets or half-inch wide strips.
Near the flour blends are seasoning mixtures for barbecued shrimp balls, Oriental beef, catfish sauce, roast meat and other dishes, all labeled in Vietnamese, Chinese and English but unfortunately without English instructions. A packet marked “Chinese special spices” is intended for the North Vietnamese beef and noodle soup pho, as you learn from the Vietnamese designation, gia vi nau pho.
Because curry is popular with the Vietnamese, the market makes available curry powders from India, Thailand, Malaysia and the United States, as well as Thai curry pastes. And there is a vast assortment of chili powders and chili pastes, some labeled specifically for the Vietnamese. One of these is Viet-Nam Style Hot Chili Garlic Sauce from Mai Ling China, Inc. in Burlingame.
The classic Vietnamese seasoning is fish sauce, which comes in two styles. One is a thin amber liquid used as a salty seasoning--the Vietnamese equivalent of soy sauce. The other is a thick sauce meaty with fish. You can actually see pieces of fish in a jar of mam ca sac, while nam mem is more finely ground. Both are from Thailand. Popular brands of clear fish sauce, also from Thailand, include Squid brand and the high-grade, more expensive Flying Lion brand, which bears the name Phu Quoc, an island renowned for the quality of its sauce.
Other Vietnamese staples include roasted rice powder (thinh), which is used with some pork dishes, and tamarind, which adds tang to a sour fish soup called canh chua ca. Maggi seasoning is a western condiment that has been adopted by the Vietnamese and Thais. And tuong cu-da is a thick, whole-grain soy sauce made with soy beans and rice. This product comes from Vietnam Food & Drink Inc. in Landover, Md.
The meat and deli sections of Ai Hoa offer such Vietnamese charcuterie as head cheese, pork meat loaves and little sausages called nem chua that Vietnamese men snack on with beer. Thin slices of beef might be dropped into ta pin lu, the Vietnamese hot pot, and pale shreds of cooked pork skin might be combined with fried shredded pork and ground roasted rice to be eaten with noodles or rice papers.
Pork cuts run from snout to tail and include more innards than you would find in most markets. Even pork uterus is on display. And since Vietnamese dote on seafood, there are tanks of live lobster, crab, tilapia and catfish.
Ai Hoa has a produce section of major dimensions, which reflects the importance of fresh greens in the Vietnamese diet. Order the beef-noodle soup, pho, in a Vietnamese restaurant and you’ll get a plate of bean sprouts and herbs alongside to add to your taste. Barbecued pork might come on top of rice noodles with shredded lettuce in the bottom of the bowl.
Leaf lettuce and Chinese vegetables occupy a large portion of Ai Hoa’s produce display. The herb section includes varieties that you may not have seen before, such as peppery, pungent rau ram. This pointy-leafed herb is eaten raw with balut (partially developed duck egg), added to cabbage salads or included in a plate of mixed greens. In Singapore, it is known as laksa leaf because it is essential to a spicy noodle soup called laksa. If you like the flavor of rau ram, you can grow it easily. Stand a bunch in a glass of water until roots form, then pot it outdoors. Rau thom is another typical Vietnamese herb. Mint, basil and cilantro are also heavily used.
Specialty items rarely available fresh can be found at Ai Hoa. They include galangal (an aromatic cousin of ginger), bamboo shoots, black fungus and red chiles. Also on hand are lemon grass, sacks of shallots, peeled young coconut, green mangoes and papaya.
Ai Hoa’s manager, Huy Trieu, says his customers tend to be ethnic Chinese who have lived in Vietnam, rather than native Vietnamese. Trieu himself is Vietnamese-Chinese from the southern city of Soc Trang; one of the employees we talked with, Mai La, was a Chinese from Ho Chi Minh City.
An unusually complete Asian market, Ai Hoa also houses a Taiwanese pastry shop, a large tea shop that dispenses tea and freshly ground coffee beans, and a wine shop stocked with Chinese, European and American wines.
Ai Hoa Supermarket, 421 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (818) 308-3998. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Other Ai Hoa Supermarkets are located at 407 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 7235 Reseda Blvd., Reseda; 15423 E. Valley Blvd., City of Industry; and 860 N. Hill St. (Chinatown), Los Angeles.