Food Worth the Trip: Ethnic Groceries Edition
As staunch supporters of the buy-local principle, it grieves us to say so, since Patel Brothers is a 54-store chain founded in Chicago with five locations in the D.C. suburbs alone. But the truth is, there’s really only one plausible competitor, which we’ll get to in a minute. But for people who love and cook Indian food as much as we do, the big Patel Brothers grocery in Gaithersburg is an unparalleled food shopping experience.
Soon enough, we’ll get to the why’s and the what-for’s, but first let’s take a moment to talk about the joys of ethnic grocery stores more generally.
Most foodies get their taste for ethnic food while traveling or living in other parts of the world. Growing up in Thailand and traveling widely in South and Southeast Asia, I developed a taste for spices and sauces that are often difficult to find in the States. Likewise, Dawn and I have traveled extensively in places like Greece and Turkey where the food is a big part of the culture.
We spent most of our youth roaming D.C. and the near suburbs, searching for hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants that could recreate those experiences. In most places, these mom-and-pop shops had just one or two dishes authentic enough to bring us back again and again: Crispy deep-fried flounder buried in chopped chilis at the Thai Room. Scallion-stuffed dumplings at the Kabul West. Mustard-seed-flecked masala dosas made on the griddle in front of us at Paru’s.
All of them gone now.
The example that always comes back to me is the Asian Grocery, a tiny Thai grocery we used to frequent in Wheaton. This was a good place to buy curry pastes and Thai condiments. But the real reason we went there so often was to graze at the steam table set up in a small side room.
It was never clear where the dishes they sold came from — the grocery didn’t have a kitchen — but they were never the standard stuff of your run-of-the-mill Thai restaurant. There was no panang or red curry, no pad Thai or drunken noodles, no khao phat or basil chicken. In fact, despite growing up in Thailand, I rarely knew what I was ordering when we ate there. It always felt like you were sampling the home cooking of all the grandmothers in the burgeoning Thai community of Wheaton.
Our favorite — and probably the single best Thai food I’ve eaten outside of Bangkok — was made of fried slices of bony catfish stir-fried in a dry, herby curry. It was blazingly spicy, but worth all the pain.
Alas, the Asian Grocery is also gone.
Fortunately, not all of our favorite ethnic groceries have disappeared. For Thai ingredients, we still head out to Bailey’s Crossroads (a long haul from our current home in Southern Maryland) to visit Duangrat’s Oriental Food Market. This is a small, but well-stocked shop that carries dozens of curry pastes and sauces. It’s also a good place to dig in the freezers for certain hard-to-find types of fish, meatballs, and aromatic vegetables.
In the past, we could also always rely Duangrat’s to have some sweet Thai-style sticky rice with red beans or coconut custard. Usually, it was wrapped up in a banana leaf and ready to eat. That’s not surprising since Rabieng, the restaurant next door, is owned by the same family and serves Isaan-style Thai food, which is well-known for its use of glutinous rice.
Today, the grocery is even better than it was when we first shopped there 30 years ago. That’s because you can now buy some of the best Rabieng dishes from a window at the back of the store. Most people carry out, but there’s one table there for people who want to savor Isaan food and watch people shop.
Those unique ingredients can also spice up other cuisines. For example, we wouldn’t think of making our Jamaican-inspired oxtail stew without throwing in a couple cans of Greek gigante beans packed in a mild tomato sauce.
That calls for a good Mediterranean grocery. For three decades, Aphrodite has been that grocery for us. But the best part of visiting a Greek grocery like this is the probably the cheese. Whenever we go to Aphrodite, we make sure to buy a tub of good cured olives and a big hunk of dry Bulgarian feta.
Aphrodite usually has a good selection of cheeses to choose from, so if you’re not sure which one to purchase, just ask the ladies behind the counter. That’s what we do.
Just a few minutes down the road from this Baileys Crossroads location is the Mecca for local Vietnamese food lovers. Eden Center is home to over 100 family-owned restaurants, jewelry stores, travel agents, and currency exchange and remittance shops. It’s still the best place in the DMV to get pho or, my favorite, ca kho to — braised, caramelized catfish cooked in a clay pot.
Some of the larger shops face out onto the massive (but seemingly never large enough) parking lot. But it would be a mistake not to wander around Eden’s three warren-like arcades to check out some of the smaller bahn mi delicatessens, Vietnamese bakeries, and noodle shops. Plus, there are nine cafes, a billiards hall, and three grocery stores, including the eponymous Eden Grocery.
The three highlights of the supermarket are the prepared foods section to the left when you enter, the enormous fruit and vegetable section to the right, and especially the seafood section that runs along the entire back wall of the store.
If you like fish, Good Fortune is your good fortune. Some of the highlights of our last visit were the shiny, fresh mackerel; lovely flat fish, including Chesapeake flounder and giant sole from France; brilliantly colored yellow croaker; and a stack of skate wings — in my mind, the king of fish flesh.
Good Fortune also has an astonishing variety of shellfish. In addition to an assortment of crabs, the seafood bins are stuffed with several types of live and shelled clams, four or five types of mussels, and baskets full of cockles, whelks, and snails.
To pair with whatever fish you buy at Good Fortune, there’s certainly no shortage of vegetables or fruit to choose. Once again, it’s the breadth of the selection as much as the quality of the goods that makes this an adventure.
Those who have traveled much in Southeast Asia will recognize the bitter gourds, the water chestnut, and the lethal-looking jackfruit and durian. But the aisles are also lined with vegetables that were alien to my eyes, and just as tempting.
That, in fact, is the danger of ethnic groceries: all those strange but beautifully displayed spices, sauces, fish, meats, and vegetables. You want to buy them all, but barely know what to do with most of them.
I know what you’re thinking: if Good Fortune is so special and has so much variety, why isn’t it our favorite?
The answer is simple. However much we might like the food of Southeast Asia, Indian food is our favorite cuisine in the world. In addition, the single best cookbook we’ve ever owned (we’re currently dog-earing the pages of our third copy) is Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries. The combination of those two prejudices mean we need a really good Indian grocery.
For us, that’s the Patel Brother’s Farmers Market in Gaithersburg. (We’ve heard the Patel Brothers have opened an even larger version in Ashburn, but we haven’t been there yet.)
One of the biggest revelations at the Patel Brothers is that the frozen curries, snacks, and breads manufactured in India are nothing like the bland and unhealthy prepared foods manufactured here. There’s a good reason: Indians raised on rich, spicy foods freshly prepared at home would never tolerate the tasteless pablum that comes out of the freezer section of an American grocery.
Frozen Indian food is also remarkable inexpensive.
So, when we come home from our monthly Patel Brothers expedition, we not only restock our spice rack and vegetable bin for a week or two of fresh-made Indian cooking, we pack our freezer with a month’ supply of snacks, quick lunches, and delicious flat breads to cook on the griddle.
Off to the right as you enter the Gaithersburg store, just beyond the green grocer, the management has cordoned off an area they call the Fresh Kitchen where they make fresh parathas and chapatis. It’s all mechanized, with the hot bread coming up a conveyor belt before being stacked and bagged and prepared for the shelves. If you prefer, you can walk up to the counter and have them hand to you still hot off the griddle.
Better still, behind the glass counter they have an array of tasty morsels for sale — many of them familiar to people who have eaten the street food of Delhi, Mombai, or Kolkata, but almost impossible to find elsewhere in the DMV. We always finish up our shopping here, buying five or six items to eat in the car before our drive home.
We’re also partial to the curry-stuffed tarts. They may look like a cherry or apple tart on the outside, but the inside is savory and usually pretty spicy. There are many to choose from, though, so you’ll have to have a sampler.
Oddly, since we are normally drawn to these spicy foods, the snack we come back to most often is the sabudana vada, a savory little fritter made from potatoes and tapioca pearls. There are peanuts and cumin seeds and coriander in the potato batter, there’s no chilis or even ginger or garlic, so these little patties can be wolfed down by just about anyone.
And that’s exactly what we do after we leave the store. We sit in the front seat of our trusty Subaru and gorge ourselves on treats from the Fresh Kitchen, washing it down with a jug of mango lassi. Then, we step out of the car and dust off the crumbs in the parking lot before the long drive home.
Now, that’s what I call shopping.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.