Asian Produce Shops Thrive

By Victor Essel

On Saturday morning, the Strip is buzzing. Penn Avenue is always packed with vehicles and parallel parking is a valuable skill. All kinds of people, locals and out-of-towners alike, crowd the sidewalks as they walk among a diverse choice of restaurants, coffee shops and specialty stores.

It’s the specialty stores that define the Strip District and offer tantalizing treats that appeal to all the senses. The aroma of Italian spices mix with Polish sausage and colorful Asian stir-fry.

In fact, the Asian presence in the Strip has grown over the past 25 years. Asian stores serve traditional Asian shoppers and Asian restaurants as well as adventurous shoppers from many other ethnic backgrounds. Two large Asian grocery stores punctuate each end of the strip with several others in between and many Asian restaurants that offer Thai, Viet, Filipino and Chinese cuisine.

At 2227 Penn Ave. you’ll find the Strip’s second-largest Asian grocery store, Wing Fat Hong Food Market. According to owner Mrs. Ren, the store has been at this location for 20 years.

A sign above the cash register reads: “Ask an employee if you need fresh large shrimp,” written in Vietnamese, Chinese, and English. Along the windows, columns of 50-pound rice bags are stacked about 6 feet high. Dozens of cardboard boxes, labeled in black Sharpie, contain a multitude of fresh products: Fresh Durian 2.39/lb, Fresh Duck Egg 99 cents/each, Coconut 1.99/each, Dried Squid 1.99/each. Customers shuffle in and out of the store, through thin aisles, surrounded by hundreds of items and boxes.

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Near the cash register a cardboard box begins to emit loud clicking sounds. A customer stands by as employees open the box to examine the 12 large live crabs inside. After a few minutes, the customer buys the whole box, along with packaged vegetables, onions, garlic and a jar of red spice.

Mrs. Ren stands behind a cash-only register. Advertisements and posters of Asian pop stars and films decorate the walls, which are riddled with a variety of scripts from the diverse languages of Asia.

“I can speak a little Thai, but I really only know Mandarin, Cantonese, and some Vietnamese,” Mrs. Ren says as she packages new basil leaves.

Specific items, like basil, draw not only individuals but also neighboring restaurants and food stands. For instance, basil is perhaps the most important condiment in the Vietnamese traditional Phở soup. Bean sprouts, lemon, jalapeños or chili peppers, and basil contribute to the main vegetable condiments of this famous dish, according to Quang Bright, owner of the restaurant Pho Van at 2120 Penn Avenue.

“Our fresh condiments come from either WFH Food market or the Asian Food Inc. next door: we buy everything for the day in the morning – bean

“I’m not sure if I am seeing a growth in the Asian community here. But I’m certain of one thing: there is definitely a growth in a taste for Asian food,” 

– Quang Bright

sprouts, basil, lemons, jalapenos, cilantro, mint, onions, lettuce, carrots and that kind of stuff,” he says.

Bright is always glad to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to people in the area.

Many customers make eating there a weekly routine. The majority of Pho Van’s customers are not of Asian descent; rather, they are professionals, students, vegetarians, health conscious families, and local people who were recommended by word-of-mouth.

“I’m not sure if I am seeing a growth in the Asian community here. But I’m certain of one thing: there is definitely a growth in a taste for Asian food,” Quang says.

Framed plaques show the communities love for Pho Van’s cuisine: In 2011 and 2012, Pho Van was voted “Best Vietnamese Restaurant in Pittsburgh” by the student body at Pitt University. Quang believes people choose Asian foods because they are generally healthier, containing less fat and more vegetarian options.

“We attract a different demographic. Many times, people will come in and order our vegetarian dishes. Most Vietnamese food is already gluten free, and doesn’t contain fried items, fat or preservatives, and all of our food includes fresh vegetables,” he pointed out.

Robert Ching, owner of the Moon Light Express Asian food truck just up Penn Avenue, agrees.

“I’ve been here for 23 years. In the past we’ve seen many new businesses open and close, here and there,” he says looking up and down The Strip. “One thing is the same – people have always had an interest in Asian cuisine.”

His food stand sells several Asian specialties that attract people of all backgrounds. Lo-Mein fried noodles, BBQ chicken kabobs, fried rice and fat egg rolls are some of the many items they pack up for hungry customers and all portions no more than a couple bucks each.

“Although we see a lot of Chinese, Indian and other Asian people shopping and coming here to eat, we bring everyone together of all kinds of backgrounds,” he said.

Kathleen Narciso, one of the cooks, says the Moon Light Express gets specialty items from either Lotus or WFH foods nearby, things like homemade chili paste or imported soy sauce. Being conveniently located in the middle of The Strip, and right next to the Vietnamese grocery store Kim Do, Kathleen and Robert often get business from shopping customers.

“After customers do their weekend grocery shopping, they come here for our Filipino, Chinese, and Thai selections,” Kathleen said.

These Asian businesses operate in The Strip for the same reasons any other business would: it is a perfect location and they’re making money! Like a network, families of Asian backgrounds – or even those who are just interested in Asian cuisine or groceries – come to The Strip to shop for items that are inexpensive and can’t be found in supermarkets like Giant Eagle.

“Where’re you going to go for Trung Nguyen Coffee, noodles, Tường ớt chili paste or sữa đặc condensed milk?” Tam Nguyen, owner of the Vietnamese grocery store Kim Do laughs.