Food and Drink: Epicurious: The New Tastes of Charleston
Sample the latest wave of ethnic markets to arrive in the Lowcountry— where employees and customers are often first-generation Americans—offering exotic fare from live winkle snails to stewed tripe
H&L Asian Market
Silvery butterfish lie arranged as if still swimming in schools; roasted ducks, glistening red-brown, hang from hooks; and the aroma of cilantro, lime, and chiles rises from bowls of pho in the Vietnamese Café. Entire aisles of mung bean and egg noodles occupy H&L—the Asian -supermarket that took over space from a former Piggly Wiggly on Rivers Avenue last year—along with 50-pound sacks of rice from Thailand and long freezer cases of fish cakes and pork dumplings, even frozen blocks of whole sparrow-sized birds.
A first trip to H&L can be an incredibly exotic—and potentially overwhelming—experience. Customers instinctively grab carts and push slowly through the wide aisles to find uncooked beak-on ducks and foam trays of chicken feet back in the meat -department. At the fish counter, shrimp swim in tanks, and live winkle snails and crabs bound with reed await. Meanwhile, fresh seaweed, stacks of the large and pungent durian fruit, and noi-na—pinecone-shaped sugar-apple fruits—line bins and baskets in the produce department.
After moving here from Hong Kong, Carina Lam; her husband, Zhen Jian Guo; and a couple of investors opened the store in late 2007. Lam had worked in restaurants—her brother and mother operate the China Chef in Summerville—but never a grocery. She says the food she orders from Atlanta, California, and New York distributors can often be eye-opening, even to her. As she walks past the 15 varieties of fish sauce on one aisle, she admits, “I don’t even know how Thai and Filipino people use all of these, but we want to cover everybody.”
The variety in the store demonstrates this effort plainly. The clientele is primarily comprised of recent immigrants from China, Vietnam, Japan, -Korea, and the Philippines, but a growing number are locals who are simply interested in Asian cooking and ingredients. Lately, a hot item has been tamarind paste, due to its predominance in so many popular Thai recipes.
For new customers, Lam can give ideas about how to eat and prepare foods—such as snacking on dried anchovies right out of the bag or adding seaweed knots to soups or stir-fried dishes. Lam admits one of her favorite foods in the store are the black duck eggs that have been preserved in salted charcoal. Asked about the origins of the store’s name, she says that the initials “H” and “L” stand for the Chinese words hang lung, which basically translates to “a business that will do well over the long run.” She laughs in agreement when asked if many businesses in China have this name.
H&L Asian Market (Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Thai)
5300 Rivers Ave., North Charleston (about 10 miles from downtown)
Some staff speak English
The Latin Beat
It’s Saturday at La Tapatia II on Dorchester Road, and el lechón turns slowly on the rotisserie, while Marco in the meat department chops roasted pig ears and snouts on a cutting board. “Like to try?” he asks. For willing customers, he offers a plastic forkful of anything in the hot-foods section, including stewed tripe and lamb and roast chicken. Not much English is heard, but the small, tidy grocery is bright and friendly. Piñatas and clay tortilla warmers line shelves above refrigerated sections filled with Mexican quesos, sausage, and Jarritos soft drinks flavored with tamarindo and mandarina. A small produce section offers such staples as tomatillos, tomatoes, and cactus (nopalitos).
The first and most lively La Tapatia location opened in 2000 in Hanahan, and two more in North Charleston were added later. Although the owner, Raul Gamerra, originally hails from Uruguay, he says the stores focus on customers originally from Mexico, as well as others who enjoy Mexican and Latin American cooking. At the Hanahan location, the air is filled with aromas of cakes baking and seasoned meats roasting. Spanish-lyric music is piped throughout, and the market bustles with people lining up at the hot-food and bakery counters, adding pastries and roast chicken or pork to the aluminum trays that they’ll carry to the cash register. Chilled desserts of sugary flan and tres leches are a specialty, along with crusty rolls filled with creamy white cheese and spicy jalapeños. There are also bolillos (French-style rolls) and plenty of pan dulce.
A hand-written sign was recently added to the front door at La Tapatia II about the “delicioso tamales.” And inside, orders of masa stuffed with seasoned pork or chicken are wrapped in banana leaves. Unwrapping each releases a waft of steam and another wonderful taste of Latin America.
La Tapatia (Mexican, as well as Central and South American), three locations in the North Charleston area.
The first and largest is at 1282 Yeamans Hall Rd., Hanahan,
at the intersection of Remount Rd. (about 11 miles from downtown)
Mostly Spanish-speaking staff
From Russia with Love
A smiling bear of a man, Alexander “Sasha” Pavlichenko lifts link sausages and blocks of farm cheese from refrigerated cases, speaking in Russian or English, depending on the customer. Pavlichenko is the Ukraine-born co-owner of Euro Foods on Ashley River Road in West Ashley. Opened just before Christmas two years ago at one end of a building of professional offices, the small store is easy to pass by. However, once inside, the feel is that of a neighborhood grocery, but with Cyrillic lettering on the food labels, wall posters, and deli chalkboard.
Aromas of coffee brewing and dark chocolates wrapped in foil give the three-aisle store a cozy feel, and every week or two, the stock is refurbished with shipments from distributors in Atlanta, New York, and New Jersey. Packaged foods and beverages (including wine and beer) are made in Russia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Latvia, the Republic of Moldova, and other former Soviet countries. There are also many products on the shelves and in the refrigerated cases that are made in the U.S. but in Russian or Eastern European style. Among the most popular, Pavlichenko says, are the cakes from the Kiev Russian Bakery in Brooklyn. Individually made and decorated, each is frozen and boxed with elaborate icing and ingredient lists, like the “Princessa” with meringue, nuts, lemon soufflé, and chocolate cream.
Euro Foods also stocks rye breads and other dense, dark loaves from Russian and Ukrainian bakeries in New York. And Pavlichenko always orders several of the long loaves with a thick and sugary poppy seed filling. “These are so good,” he says. But then, in his thick accent, he relates the story of a college student who bought one, ate the whole thing, and later got a positive result on a drug test, blamed on the poppy seeds. (Euro Foods also carries candy bar-sized chocolate-covered pieces of poppy cheesecake in the freezer-, which are deliciously worth the risk.)
The delicacies here seem particularly suited to cool weather and holidays: smoked sprats in fancy black cans from Latvia; plum and pomegranate wines from Georgia and Armenia; and boxes as big as Monopoly games filled with dark chocolate candies and decorated with paintings of Czar Nicholas. As if a shopper could possibly have any doubt, Pavlichenko often assures people, “This is very special!”
He advises which foods taste good with a little vodka, and if you ask, he will package up some of the sour tomatoes, whole brined herring, or crunchy pickles that he buys in bulk and keeps in a cooler in the back room. So far, though, not many American customers have asked for those. It’s the same story with some of the beverages, like the Ukraine-made malt drink, KBAC, which features an image of a monk on the label, and the bright green bottles of anise-flavored TAPXYH from Russia. Then there’s Borjomi, a Georgian mineral water first bottled in 1890 that he says was standard issue for soldiers and tastes almost salty. “Drink this,” he says, “and it’s like having a little bit of Russian history.”
Euro Foods (Russian, German, Latvian, Georgian, and Bulgarian)
1727 Ashley River Rd.
Charleston (about six miles from downtown)
Staff speaks English.
KC International Mart
Stepping into KC International Mart on Red Bank Road, the scents of coconut, sugar, and yeast fill the air. The store seems particularly festive, and we discover the owners, Nonah and Long Garcia, are celebrating the market’s first anniversary. A karaoke machine stands at the ready, a man is frying samples of lumpia (a crispy thin egg roll filled with meat), and women in the open kitchen and bakery are baking four types of Filipino bread, including ensaymada, soft salt rolls brushed with sugar and butter, and pan de coco, yeast buns with a sugar-coconut filling.
Especially for the event, the Garcias have borrowed a vintage ice-cream cart that once rolled along streets in the Philippines, and one of the KC staff serves free samples of the purple-yam-flavored ube. Nonah says that particular ice-cream brand, Magnolia, can be difficult to find in the U.S., and some customers seek out her store just to buy it.
The focus of KC, located in a new, 10,000-square-foot building in Goose Creek, is strongly on the foods and products of the Philippines, where Nonah was raised. The store also stocks food from throughout Asia, along with items from Europe and Mexico, and even fufu flour and other staples from Africa.
Also at KC is a large section of fresh seafood, sticky rice noodles ready to boil, and purple yams and banana leaves in the freezer (“In Filipino cooking, we wrap everything in banana leaves—fish, sweet rice, meats,” Nonah explains). Fresh mangoes, plantains, and locally grown bitter melons fill the produce department, and plenty of condensed and coconut milk in cans line the shelves. There are gallon jugs of soy sauce and a dozen varieties of vinegar made from palm, sugar cane, and coconut. And there’s at least a 15-foot stretch of shelves dedicated to brightly labeled jars of fruit—coconut, jackfruit, pineapple, and sometimes kidney beans, too—all suspended in heavy syrups. Nonah says that the fruit concoctions are often used in a summer dessert, halo-halo, in which the fruit is poured over evaporated milk and shaved ice. “It’s so good,” she says.
There’s a hot-food counter, too, with head-on whole fried fish and crabs and Filipino specialties like pork chunks stewed in beef blood (rich and melty—almost like short ribs); chicken in shrimp sauce; and bilo-bilo dumplings in coconut milk with tapioca and pieces of plantains, sweet potatoes, and taro, which taste comforting, like a chunky rice pudding.
Nonah, who first came to Charleston in 1986 to work as a physical therapist at Roper Hospital, shows customers around during the anniversary celebration. KC is a busy store, often with whole families shopping together. As we are preparing to leave, Long points to the microphone, asking, “Did you want to sing?” But a line of young women are already waiting for their chance, one sweetly going through the verses of “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
KC International Mart (Filipino, Asian, Mexican, African, and European)
1217 Redbank Rd., Goose Creek (about 17 miles from downtown)
Staff speaks English.