A Spanish telenovela, or soap opera, blaring on the flat-screen along with the trickling of water from a six-foot fountain of the Virgin Mary provide welcome distractions while we wait for our food. Soon, our plate of tacos arrives with neat piles of carne asada, or beef, and marinated al pastor pork, sprinkled with chopped cilantro and onions, atop small, round corn tortillas, doubled up. They are surrounded by slices of lime and a side of grilled cactus and spring onions, as well as two kinds of fresh salsa—one made with green tomatillos, and the other a deep-red concoction of fiery chilies. This simple but delicious finger food satisfies our appetites for the next few hours—all for under $6.
A new restaurant this is not, but rather some back tables in the Mexican grocery store Mercado Cinco de Mayo on Eastern Avenue. Exploring the place, we walked past fresh produce—mangoes, yucca, and tomatillos—piled high; a butcher's department heavy on the pork and beef; through back rooms stocked floor to ceiling with Mexican spices, assorted dried chilies, rice, and a whole wall of beans; before finally stumbling upon these secluded dining tables serving specialties from south of the border. Herein lies the draw of an ethnic grocer—a cool find awaits around every aisle. And apparently the word is out. Stopping by for takeout, Siri Serngadichaivit, a Washington, D.C., native whose brother lives in the neighborhood, says, "I love it here—their food is authentic."
As a port city, Baltimore has always welcomed immigrants. After the English and Germans came Italians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and Greeks who established their own communities within the city. A Baltimore landmark like Little Italy, one of the few ethnic enclaves that has managed to stand the test of time, has largely survived as a popular dining destination. But there are other ethnic pockets that have sprung up as well, such as the Hispanic community in Upper Fells Point, which, given the latest statistics, is not surprising.
In more recent years, many Hispanic immigrants—mostly from Mexico and Central America—have moved into the area, joining previous generations of immigrants. A natural result of such cultural collision is a broadening of the culinary landscape, as newer immigrants establish a foothold, creating the diversity for which Baltimore is fast becoming known.
"Since diners are starting to be more adventurous, chefs are really pushing the flavor profiles in our dishes," says Dooby's executive chef Tim Dyson, who frequents Cinco de Mayo for its chilies and tortas. "Baltimore will always be a blue-collar town, but it's neat to see people stepping outside of their comfort zones and seeking out ethnic-specific foods."
Both restaurants and immigrant communities rely on the city's many ethnic grocery stores to supply them with spices and special ingredients. As diners' palates are becoming more daring, these mom-and-pop shops supply the sights, smells, and tastes of other cultures.
"Walking through these aisles is like taking a trip around the world. It's amazing," says Constantine Sideris, 67, a customer at Punjab Groceries & Halal Meat, which specializes in South Asian cuisine. "It brings me back to my youth when I was a teenager in the Merchant Marines."
A cool find awaits around every aisle. And apparently the word is out.
Though this Waverly storefront looks deceptively small from the street, once inside, its well-stocked aisles run deep. The produce section—stacked cases of mangoes, papayas, lychees, okras, coconuts, and yuccas—engulfs you upon entry, catching the eye with its colors. Bunches of fresh greens, lethal green chilies, and fragrant curry leaves stay crisp inside a refrigerator. An entire aisle is dedicated to every spice imaginable—whole or in powdered form. There are bottles of chutneys and pickles, and every kind of dried legume—from kidney and mung beans to black-eyed and yellow split peas—and even black njahi beans, of which we've never heard. The freezer section contains fish such as hilsa, rohu, kajoli, and lakka, which are foreign to U.S. waters.
Punjab also carries the staples—rice, breads, dairy—as well as fresh halal meats in the butcher section, one of the very few local places that sells goat's head. But one of the biggest draws is the fresh samosas—small, deep-fried savory pastries, filled with green peas, potatoes, and spices—that are piled high in a foil-covered pan on the front counter.
Behind that counter, you're likely to find Punjab co-owner Sajawal Khan, 40, or one of his three partners. (They bought the place in 2001.) Khan first emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. in 1997 and started working in Atlantic City. After a brief stint in North Carolina, he ended up in Baltimore.
"We came here to see our friend, and he said this store was for sale," he explains. The previous owners were also Pakistani and, before that, from India and Bangladesh. Despite having no experience running a store, Khan says, "One of our friends had a store in Atlantic City, and told us who the wholesaler stores were in New York, and we go every week to Philadelphia for vegetables to a big produce market." Gradually, they built up the store and expanded it, knocking down the back wall to accommodate a walk-in freezer, as well as a container for dry storage. According to Khan, his customers are "not only Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepali, but American, white, black, African, Sri Lankan, Chinese, and lot of students from Hopkins."
Sideris, who has been coming to Punjab for the last 13 years because he likes "hot stuff," remembers the first time he discovered the place. "I was looking to buy lamb—it was Easter time—and I was disappointed by the American lamb. It's not edible, like Australian and New Zealand lamb," he says. "So I ended up here, and I got some lamb, and along with the lamb I got all this beautiful stuff." He proudly shows off the contents of his shopping basket. "Turkish coffee, sweets. Look how cheap the oils are, like this olive oil for eight bucks. This is like a third of the price of a regular store. This is like going to the candy store."
Thomas Toung emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1964 to become a fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. After a stint in Wichita, KS, in 1967, he became an assistant resident in anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins, where he is currently a professor. As soon as he laid down roots in Baltimore, he started bringing over his family from Taiwan, including nine brothers and four sisters. In 1970, Thomas set up his younger brother Wi-Tsai with a Chinese grocery called Asia Food, located downtown on St. Paul Street. The store was strictly wholesale, supplying Baltimore's burgeoning Chinatown on Park Avenue.
"Baltimore [had] only one Chinese store, so we were really busy," says Henry, 75, another one of the Toung brothers, who currently runs the store with his wife of 48 years, Mun-Ge, and their son, Chaw-Kim, 40.
Henry took over after his brother passed away in 1983, the same year they moved to their present location on York Road in Govans. The red-and-white "Asia Food" sign subtitled with Chinese characters is easy to miss, but a recently added more eye-catching marquee announces "Asian Market" in bold red letters, with the awning specifying, "Indian, Asian, American & Hispanic Foods."
"Before our sign everybody drove by, like, 'We didn't know, we thought it was a warehouse. We didn't know we could come in here and buy anything,'" says Chaw-Kim. "But we've been here forever."
Even though Asia Food does not advertise, Chaw-Kim has seen an uptick in business—especially in the last five years.
"Before we had just regular customers coming in here, but now we have customers we've never seen constantly coming in," he says. "Like my mom was telling me, 'I don't recognize all these people coming in.' Before we recognized everyone."
Motioning to his father, he says, "He knows everybody who owns a Chinese restaurant—the older generation—and they know him, too. The people that emigrated here, especially Asians, all opened restaurants. That's all they did." In the beginning, his dad was driving up to New York twice a week to pick up supplies. "Everything was imported into New York, and they didn't deliver down here," says Chaw-Kim. "Today it's so competitive they even deliver to restaurants down here."
His mother, polite and impeccably dressed, tends to a customer buying a few cans of Maesri brand Thai curry paste. "Oh, that's good. And easy to make," she encourages. "Really? Thanks!" replies the young African-American woman. "I'm excited to try it."
"See we sell basic stuff—like I need soy sauce or rice—there you go," says Chaw-Kim. "That's why we cater to mostly Americans because it's easy."
Though many home cooks shop there these days, Asia Foods sells pretty much everything one would need to start an Asian restaurant. An entire aisle contains industrial-size woks, serving platters, clay pots, bamboo steamers, utensils, and rice cookers.
The rest of the store is stocked with hefty sacks of rice, a dizzying variety of noodles, soy sauces, teas, spices, and, even an entire aisle dedicated to Indian spices and products. The store's refrigerated produce section at the back boasts such Asian vegetables as bok choy, kalian (or Chinese broccoli), daikon radish, and whole stalks of lemongrass. In the freezers, there are all sorts of meats and seafood—from frozen quail or duck to baby octopus—as well as prepared foods like pork buns, dumplings, kimchi, and Calamansi juice from the Philippines. Behind this roomy retail space is a warehouse about twice the size, which was built to house its wholesale operation for area restaurants.
"I think for a long time, it was just us chefs who ventured into these stores out of interest and curiosity," Dyson says. "But now the restaurant guest is seeking it out, too. Ingredients and condiments that were once just back-of-the-house have started exploding."
To Market, To Market
When it comes to ethnic grocery stores, Baltimore is like the United Nations. Here is a small sampling of what to find where.
Asia Food: One of Baltimore's oldest purveyors of Asian ingredients, you will find everything you need to make your next baingan bharta or bibimbap. A great selection of woks and rice cookers are for sale, too. 5224 York Rd., 410-323-8738.
Han Ah Reum (Hmart): This Korean chain is the mother ship for foods. Look for items in the meat, fish, and produce departments you won't find anywhere else in town. 800 N. Rolling Rd., Catonsville, 443-612-9020.
Potung Trading: This small but well-stocked Asian grocer located in Baltimore's Chinatown district has that odd ingredient from Indonesia or Thailand listed in your Authentic Recipes from Vietnam cookbook and earns rave reviews for its wide selection of fish sauces. 321 Park Ave., 410-962-1510.
Punjab Groceries & Halal Meat: This grocer offers an exhaustive inventory of South Asian spices and condiments, as well as a full-service Halal butcher specializing in lamb and goat. Buy the vegetable samosas available at the front counter. 345 E. 33rd St. 410-662-7844.
This chain is a major source for all products from Southeast Asia from spices to beauty foods. Masala popcorn, anyone? 6402 Baltimore National Pike Route # 40, Catonsville, 410-719-2822
Koko Market: With everything from hookah to fresh halal meats, this affordable market specializes in Middle Eastern fruit juices, desserts, rice, and rare spices. 6020 Eastern Ave., 410-633-6030.
Seven Mile Market
A large grocer providing a convenient one-stop shopping experience for customers in search of all things kosher, including hot prepared foods for grabbing on the go. 201 Reisterstown Rd., Pikesville, 410-653-2000.
Cinco De Mayo: In addition to a great selection of Mexican chilies and spices, meats, and produce, Cinco de Mayo is the go-to place for piñatas, a large selection of which swing from the ceiling. 417 S. Highland Ave., 410-276-0004
La Favorita: Famous for its fresh avocados, this Central and South American grocer offers a rare assortment of produce including guavas and green mangos. Authentic desserts like churros and tres leches cakes are also sold in the store. 540 Cranbrook Rd., Cockeysville, 410-628-1442
Island Food Market: From anise seed essence to frozen goat meat, Island Food specializes in all types of products from the Caribbean, with a fishmonger in the back. 5318 Park Heights Ave., 410-664-1818.
Caribbean Supermarket: If you're looking for ingredients to make an authentic Caribbean dish, a visit to this ethnic market is your best bet. Offerings include specialty products like dried noodles, fresh seafood, Goya products, and an affordable selection of produce. 8040 Liberty Road, 410-922-7260.
Di Pasquale's: This community market features imported Italian groceries such as meats, cheeses, and gourmet olive oils, while also putting its homemade delicacies on display. Brick-oven baked breads and house-made cannoli cream can all be found at this Old World neighborhood store. 3700 Gough St. 410-276-6787.
Trinacria Foods: This cozy market has been around for generations providing the community with authentic Italian ingredients. All types of pasta, sauces, homemade breads, to-go lasagnas, overstuffed sandwiches, and a full bakery are on offer. 406 N. Paca St. 410-685-7285
Pastore's Italian Delly: Carryout items such as fresh ravioli and hearty subs are available, along with an impressive line of imported Italian groceries at this longstanding deli market. Pastore's also sells pasta machines and hand-painted platters and bowls. 8646 Loch Raven Blvd., Towson, 410-825-5316.
Greek Town Bakery & Delicatessen: For 35 years, this Highlandtown store has supplied Greektown with olives, olive oil, feta, coffee, jams, and other dry goods from Greece. 4705 Eastern Ave., 410-276-8052.
Prima Foods, Inc.: Prima is a wholesale food distributor with retail space specializing in products imported from Greece including olives, wines, frozen lamb and octopus, and some of the best feta in town. 51 Kane St., 410-633-5500.