Last week, my friend Rona hosted her parents who where visiting from Maui. They were staying for the whole week, and being of Filipino descent, they wanted to know where the nearest Asian supermarket was. And when my aunt from Taiwan arrives next month, she will be asking me to take her to the nearest Asian grocery store, as well. It's a testament to the significant role Asian markets play in maintaining a sense of identity and connection within Asian individuals.
I am no exception to this.
Currently, the hottest Asian market is the Hong Kong Market Place in Grand Prairie. This supermarket may have only moved a few miles east on Pioneer Parkway, but it's making its debut across a new city line, from Arlington to Grand Prairie. It may seem like a long drive just to visit a grocery store (not that much farther than Garland or Richardson, for me), but it is an all-inclusive experience. There's a food court where one can find everything from pastries to pho, and the still-pristine market is perfect for strolling and exploring after a meal.
My favorite thing about visiting Asian markets has less to do with grocery shopping as it does with hunting for cheap snacks. I haven't changed much since childhood, when I would escape from my mother's watchful eye while she was grocery shopping so that I could roam the aisles by myself, gathering shrimp chips and strawberry wafers, sneaking my loot into our grocery cart.
Fortunately, however, with age I have learned to enjoy more sustenance-providing foods, and what catches my eye one trip to the Hong Kong Market Place is the Che Hong Kong located in the food court outside the grocery store. Che Hong Kong is in the breed of Vietnamese deli/cafeteria/takeout-style restaurant. These take-out style delis can be found in almost every large Asian supermarket or Vietnamese shopping strip. They serve everything from home-style rice boxes (to-go containers of rice and choices of meats and veggies), to traditional Vietnamese desserts called che. Although these delis, with their infinite variety, can be a good way to get my Vietnamese fix, many of these places are hit or miss. Luckily, everything is usually less than $5, so the trial and error is affordable.
If the cure for my kind of cultural homesickness is food, then Che Hong Kong offers a cornucopia of home-style cuisine to alleviate my ailment; corn on the cob, duck feet, thit kho (braised pork and egg), sardines, cha trung hap (minced meat and egg pie), xoi (sweet sticky rice), banh mi thit (Vietnamese sub sandwich), etc. Representing the "Hong Kong" component of the restaurant's name are the Cantonese-style fried whole pigs and roasted ducks hanging from behind a plexi-glass display window.
Reminding myself that I only came in for a snack, I forego my inclination to order a whole duck, and opt for smaller fare. However, there's a $10 minimum purchase at Che Hong Kong in order to use a debit card, so I take that as a license to go nuts. After ordering two desserts, a Vietnamese sub, a xoi thap cam, a corn on the cob, and a rice box, I finally hit my $10 minimum.
The food court is a ghost town. Even though the complex is fairly new, a Korean noodle stall already has gone out of business. I take a seat at one of the many empty tables and begin to dissect my Che Hong Kong purchase. The rice box is essentially rice, two meats, and a vegetable all for $4. I've chosen pork stewed with fish sauce, spicy bone-in chicken seasoned with sugar and fish sauce, and a broccoli/cauliflower medley. The pork is disappointing, intensely salty and overly fishy. But the chicken is amazing and a reminder of all the late nights of street food chicken wings I've had in Vietnam. The sauce for the chicken is a caramelized nuance of fish sauce, minced red chilies, and sugar.
Corn on the cob may not seem very exciting, but it is an extremely popular street food in Vietnam. The corn at Che Hong Kong is steamed and served still in the husk. It is a white kernel corn and much starchier than our traditional corn on the cob. After a few bites, I move on to the good stuff.
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Xoi tap cam is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes of all time. However, this means I am very particular when it comes to the dish, and I only eat it at one certain restaurant when I am back in Vietnam. I decide to give it a try because I don't see it at many places here, and Che Hong Kong's looks decent. I am proven wrong. Xoi is sticky glutinous rice which can be eaten either sweet or savory. Xoi tap cam is in the savory category. Glutinous rice is flavored with soy sauce and grease and topped with crispy lard, fried onions, Chinese sausage, pork, and dried shrimp. What could go wrong? For starters, the rice is the main component of the dish and must be cooked perfectly. This is where Che Hong Kong fails. Their rice is dry and hard, making the dish inedible. At least I still had dessert.
Che is an all encompassing word for a Vietnamese dessert: There are many different kinds. I opt for the che xoi nuoc; both large and small sticky rice balls, the large ones filled with mung bean, all of them swimming in a sweet ginger root syrup, topped with sesame seeds, then smothered with coconut milk. And because I can't resist, I also try the banh chuoi, a gelatinous banana cake topped with crushed peanuts and coconut milk. The che xoi nuoc, with its perfectly cooked and chewy rice balls is immeasurably better than the artificial-tasting banana cake, which has not one banana in sight.
I can't imagine what it was like for my grandparents and parents when they first came to America, completely foreign in a whole new world. Their first business venture in America was opening an Asian market, at which many immigrants shopped. Besides providing a living for my family, it created a semblance of comfort and home to so many who needed it. This affect lingers today at Asian markets, and I, an Asian-American living in Uptown Dallas, Texas am fortunate for that.
Hong Kong Market Place
2615 W. Pioneer Parkway