Being in the business of watching food trends, I am one of those people who often gets asked the question: “Where do I go for ___,” particularly when it comes to groceries used in ethnic food cooking.
As one who has been dispensing culinary advice for more than a decade in our area, I can say with all certainty that the palates of metro Grand Rapids residents have expanded well beyond your basic meat and potatoes into Thai, Chinese, Indian, Moroccan, Spanish and even more exotic foods. We need only look at the proliferation of ethnic food sections in mainstream stores owned by Meijer Inc. and Spartan Stores Inc. to see we are becoming more cosmopolitan in our tastes.
Our growing band of adventurous cooks is also helping to support the increased number of local specialty markets carrying ingredients that evade even the ethnic food sections of football field-sized hypermarkets. A decade ago, local residents clamored for the specialty shops handling fresh meats, fish and veggies. These gourmets have now graduated to finding local stores that carry galangal and Spanish chorizo (which is not the same as Mexican chorizo) and bulghur.
The rise in the number of ethnic supermarkets highlights another quality of West Michigan: our growing diversity. I believe metro Grand Rapids has the widest range of ethnic supermarkets now than at any time in its history because the stores are serving the needs of individuals who view these "exotic" ingredients as staples in their everyday diet. It's arrogant and just plain wrong to think that these mom-and-pop operations are the results of local gourmets. Rather, local gourmets are indebted to those who have immigrated here and decided to make this area their home.
Learning New Ways
Once a year, I try to travel to a country or region of the world that is unfamiliar to me, which then serves as a cooking "school" of sorts because I learn so much about the culture and the proper way to prepare a particular ethnic meal. For instance, I’ve been getting familiar with the many Asian markets around metro Grand Rapids since beginning my Thai cooking expedition a few years back.
There are great pockets of stores stemming from other ethnicities as well. On my hunt for the range of offerings in our area, I was stunned to learn from a report published by the Right Place about three years ago that there were 14 Hispanic markets and bakeries in our area. It’s fantastic we all have such opportunities to shop at places such as this.
Visiting local ethnic supermarkets is an adventure in other ways. Most of them function not only as a place to get food, but also as a focal point for a local ethnic population. The Saigon Market at 609 28th St. SE has a giant bulletin board advertising work opportunities, events, items for sale along with housing, and a tax service that helps individuals in at least three languages. Another fun example is the Armenian-owned URARTU International Foods at 4301 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, near the intersection of 44th Street and Kalamazoo. URARTU sells authentic Eastern European products -- many of which bear the Cyrillic alphabet -- to people who buy what they know and cook how they know. But the store also serves as a place for some to exchange pleasantries and information in their native tongue.
Because these places are usually in neighborhood pockets, they aren’t always easy to find. Here is a sampling of stores so that you too can venture out to experience some of the worldly flavors we have here in Grand Rapids. But this list isn't by any means comprehensive. Have a favorite to share? Please comment on it on my blog.
A great number of the Asian markets are located in a pocket just south of Division and 32nd Streets.
Kim Nhung Super Store Wholesale & Retail
4242 S. Division Ave
Since I shopped here the last time, this store has really cleaned up and has interesting selections of fresh fish, meats and exotic veggies. Their dry goods and canned items are plentiful in both variety and quantity. They even have one full aisle dedicated to cooking items like woks, pots and spatulas – even down to Thai sticky rice baskets – which I was overjoyed to find!
Besides the store itself, I love its location in the "Golden Bridge Plaza," with Wei Wei Palace (the most authentic Chinese you can find in Grand Rapids) and fantastic noodle bowls at neighboring Pho-Soc-Trang Vietnamese beef noodle soup restaurant.
KB’s Oriental Supermarket & Kim Son Jewelry
3617 South Division Ave
This seems to be my current favorite of the markets in this area because it has a large selection of Thai items I enjoy using. I love its Asian authenticity and family feel inside. This place, in addition to its community ‘advertising’ all about, has a jewelry store attached that seems to have a pretty loyal local clientele as well.
A Dong & Oriental Food Market
3614 South Division Ave
Another rather complete market with a large Vietnamese food focus but would impress any Asian food shopper.
Asian Delight Market Place
4463 Breton Rd SE
I’ve only been here a handful of times, but it’s a very friendly, clean and fresh stop connecting my fresh finds at Horrocks Market with this next door neighbor.
609 28th Street
In addition to the regular dry goods and staples, Saigon market sells live crawdads and other swimming things. This store has been around forever on this strip of 28th Street but has expanded from its former location into a much larger and more organized space. Also within the store is WIN Services, offering income tax help, translation services, mortgages and home equity loans.
La Familia Stop-n-Shop
1066 Grandville Avenue SW
Great street appeal, small to medium sized but full of staple items, including Mexican beer.
1428 Grandville Avenue SW
1610 Clyde Park SW
This complete grocery is in a new strip mall and was well populated with shoppers leaving with full carts! It’s obviously new and clean and well lit.
La Tapatia Supermercado
1546 Clyde Park SW
This is a smaller grocery, more of a convenience store with lotto and sundries, but offers up a nice if small selection of fresh produce, frozen ítems and a super fantastic looking butcher shop! I was stunned at my choices of pig parts to select. All kinds. The butcher was super nice. Though we had limited English/Spanish conversation skills, we worked it out, and my Bistec was super!
1506 Grandville Avenue SW
Another stunner. Walking into this place was interesting; canned and packaged foods at one glance, cake making and decorating – along with general party décor along the other side. To the side another almost separate store with check cashing and such. To the back? An amazing bakery – but only cakes, nothing to munch on (as I was hoping for!) Every cake was custom made: everytime I looked up there was another beautiful tiered wedding cake walking by. Need an awesome birthday or wedding cake? I’d check here.
617 Bridge Street NW
188 Wealthy Street SE
926 Wealthy Street SE
This is a new ‘nameless’ but decent small Guatemalan store that I’m trying to use whenever possible to grab juice, eggs, milk or select produce and canned goods.
URARTU International Foods
4301 Kalamazoo Avenue SE
Quaint and as mentioned above has a super selection of Armenian and other Eastern European foods. Everyone was very nice and I found fun things to buy which I had never tried before. Watch their hours, they are closed Sunday – Tuesday.
Mediterranean Island Foods
4301 Kalamazoo Avenue SE (same strip mall as URARTU)
This place is huge and provides amazing amounts of selection in Greek and Turkish foodstuffs, everything from breads and pies to premade baklava, spices and fresh items. This is somewhere I could get lost for hours and accidentally buy way too much stuff!
Amy Ruis owns and operates Art of the Table, a specialty food, beverage, and tabletop retail store in the Wealthy Street Business District. She blogs at www.artofthetable.com/talk and you can reach her at [email protected].
Photographs by Joshua Tyron - All Rights Reseved