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A Passion for Asian Foods : Markets: City officials suspect that many non-residents flock to Monterey Park for its specialty food stores. One developer is banking on it.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vats of glistening baby bamboo shoots. Shellfish crawling in tanks. Cartons of noodles. Piles of pig’s ears. Stacks of black-skinned pigeons. Buckets of fresh pork blood.

Such are the delicacies that attract huge crowds of Asian shoppers each weekend to Monterey Park, Southern California’s suburban Chinatown.

Every Saturday, the Zhou family drives about 50 miles round-trip to shop at Ai Hoa Supermarket on North Atlantic Boulevard, one of a handful of large Asian supermarkets in the city.

“There are no Asian markets where we live,” said Joe Zhou, who makes the hourlong trek from Valencia with his wife and two children. “Here we can get Asian spices, Chinese noodles and fresh meat and fish.”

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City officials suspect that there are many more people like Zhou, who live outside Monterey Park but crowd its streets each weekend to shop, eat and visit with family and friends.

They are uncertain, however, just how large the weekend influx is. So plans are now under way to count the number of non-residents who come to the area regularly and, in turn, to assess the economic impact they have on the city of 60,700.

The results, expected by mid-July, are important. Even though the latest U.S. Census figures show that 56% of Monterey Park’s residents are Asian--one of the highest concentrations in any American city--a developer with financial ties to Taiwan is depending on visitors to patronize an ambitious $80-million hotel and shopping center complex on North Atlantic Boulevard.

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that Monterey Park attracts Asians from all over,” City Manager Mark Lewis said. “But we want to make sure that Asian shoppers will support a big development project. We’ll be looking to see if the anecdotal evidence pans out.”

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The company, BCTC Development, is confident that it will.

“We believe that there is a much larger draw than just the Asian people who live here,” said John Wong, a representative of the firm. “Any trip through Monterey Park on a weekend will show you that.”

Indeed, on a recent Saturday, scores of shoppers pressed forward at Hoa Binh Supermarket on South Atlantic Boulevard, edging their way toward bins filled with bloody whole mackerel, pompano and snapper on ice. Stacked high also were more unusual offerings from the deep: sea cucumber, squid and octopus.

“Chinese like very fresh fish,” said Thousand Oaks resident Mindi Li as she plucked several from a large gray bin and handed them to one of a dozen apron-clad workers for skinning, cleaning and wrapping.

All around her, patrons yelled out their orders in a chorus of Chinese dialects, pointing out the fish they wanted from tanks filled with live tilapia fish, lobster, crab and catfish. “If they can get it,” Li said, “they like their fish swimming.”

Li, her husband, two children and father make the trip to Monterey Park once a month. First, they go out for a meal of dim sum and then head for the Asian market to stock up on such items as Chinese noodles, tofu, bok choy, fresh bamboo shoots, Chinese sausage, plum candy, canned litchis in syrup, oyster sauce and Pop-pan, a popular breakfast cracker.

“We make it a family activity,” said Li, who spends about $200 each month to stock up on what she can’t buy in regular American markets. “The kids love it.”

Most of the Asian markets also feature vegetarian health foods, many of which are eaten during sacred Buddhist holidays. Soy juice, fried tofu, fermented soybean curd and non-meat chicken and sausage made from soybean products are among the most common, said Linda Chen, who works at Hong Kong Supermarket at North Garfield Avenue.

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The larger Asian markets--similar in size to American grocery stores like Ralphs, Hughes or Vons--stock Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Philippine and Japanese foods. They also have small, separate sections where ginseng and tea, baked goods and Chinese-language videos and newspapers are sold.

Back in 1978 when Jen Shen Wu opened Diho Market on South Atlantic Boulevard--the first Chinese supermarket in Monterey Park--naysayers insisted that he had bought too much land and opened too large a store. Now, 13 years later, Diho is thriving. And Monterey Park also supports at least three major supermarkets, as well as a dozen or so medium and small ones.

Asian markets are now even beginning to spread beyond Monterey Park, to Alhambra and eastward to San Gabriel, Rosemead, West Covina and Rowland Heights.

For example, the San Gabriel Valley now has three Hong Kong Supermarkets, including branches in San Gabriel and Rowland Heights, which opened last summer. Ai Hoa also has three stores in the San Gabriel Valley: Monterey Park, Alhambra and the City of Industry.

“A lot of Chinese are moving east of Monterey Park,” said the city’s assistant manager, Susan Chow. “I live in Rowland Heights, and for a long time there were no Chinese markets there. Now there are two.”

Once, downtown Los Angeles’ Chinatown was the only place Asians could find Chinese restaurants and markets. But many Monterey Park shoppers said they prefer the suburb, where it is less crowded, parking is easier and they feel safer.

Linh Trieu makes the trip from Whittier with her mother and father twice a month. “I don’t have a choice,” Trieu said, while helping her parents fill two grocery carts. “I’d rather shop in my own neighborhood, but there is no big Asian store. These stores have the ethnic foods that the American markets don’t carry--things American people don’t eat, exotic things.”

But sometimes, non-Asian customers will come to the markets of Monterey Park. Matthew Clancy of Pasadena said he went to the Hong Kong Supermarket in search of jasmine tea. “The same thing costs four times as much at Vons,” he said, “and it’s in the same box.”

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Free-lance writer Nancy Matsumoto contributed to this story.


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