Customers Get a Taste of Home : Markets in Little Saigon Sell Imported Foods From Asia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are about 20 of them in Little Saigon and they look just like any other food market from the outside.

But walk on in, keep your eyes open, and don't be afraid to smell. It's the variety of products in these stores that keeps customers--Asians or otherwise--coming back week after week for staples one just can't find elsewhere.

There are up to 25 types of fish in Little Saigon Supermarket on Bolsa Avenue, from catfish to tilapia to barracuda. And, yes, some of them are still swimming.

The season for durians just began, and they can be found in the fruit and vegetable section of any respectable Asian grocery store during the summer. The large green, prickly fruit is a delicacy for some and a nightmare for others. Bring one home, cut it up. Ignore the notorious smell and put some of the yellow filling in your mouth. It's supposed to be sweet.

Cak Thi Dao, 53, of Huntington Beach said it's quite a treat to find fresh durians outside Asia.

"Some people eat it and say it stinks," Dao said as she chose one for her family on a recent expedition at 99 Price Market. "Others say the smell is wonderful. But the smell takes getting used to, like cheese."

She is continually amazed at the variety of Asian foods available in Orange County, she said.

"I had heard that there were these stores here when I was still in Vietnam," said Dao, whose children sponsored her move to the United States five years ago, "but I never thought there hardly would be anything missing. They're only missing a few types of spices."

Ronell Myburogn, 29, said she likes to frequent Asian markets for favorites she grew accustomed to in her native South Africa, such as a Chinese brand of hot chocolate marketed by Nestle and Indian curry ingredients.

"I like this store," she said, standing in an aisle at 99 Price. "It's so big and it's kind of original."

Owners of these stores pride themselves on providing variety by importing products from all over Asia. They also take care to stock their shelves with staples popular in American markets--beer from Germany, cheese from France, and potato chips from the United States.

"We make it more convenient for our customers," said David Tran, whose family owns and operates Little Saigon Supermarket.

On weekends, when the Asian merchant district is overcrowded with shoppers from as far away as San Diego, Tran has three workers whose sole job is to direct traffic and find parking spaces for his clients in the big lot out front.

Kim Pham, 30, is a loyal customer at Little Saigon Supermarket, even though she lives in Long Beach.

"I come here several times a week," she said. "I like the selection of the vegetables and fruits."

Al Samala, a 59-year-old native of Hawaii with Filipino ancestry, said 99 Price has everything his family needs.

"If it weren't for the distance--I live in Mission Viejo--we'd shop here all the time and wouldn't need to go to" mainstream stores, Samala said.

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