Food is the universal language at Asheville specialty markets

WINDOW SHOPPING: Suzy Phillips, owner of Gypsy Queen restaurant and market, has assembled Lebanese Survival Kits for home cooks. Photo courtesy Gypsy Queen

When Suzy Phillips, a native of Lebanon, moved to Asheville in 2003, she was glad to find Jerusalem Garden Café, the family-owned Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurant downtown. “But it wasn’t my mom’s food,” she says. “I wanted to share a part of me with my new community through food.”

She didn’t have the capital to open a restaurant, so instead, in 2010, she helped kickstart Asheville’s food truck scene with Gypsy Queen Cuisine. The success of her mobile venture led to the Gypsy Queen brick-and-mortar restaurant on Patton Avenue in West Asheville that marked its fifth anniversary in October.

For Phillips, the challenge in cooking food true to her Lebanese roots — particularly as a home cook before she opened her businesses and could tap wholesale options — was sourcing ingredients. “When I wanted to buy groceries to cook at home, I had to drive to Greenville,” she recalls. “There is a restaurant there called the Pita House, and in a separate room were all the groceries, spices, cheeses, dried beans and bread. They’re Palestinian, and their bread is a little different than Lebanese bread, but it was what I could find.”

Phillips laments that Asheville still lacks a Middle Eastern specialty store or international market — she notes the Dekalb Farmers Market in Decatur, Ga., which offers food items from all over the world. To assist home cooks, she has assembled and sells what she calls the “Lebanese Survival Kit”: prepared tahini, yogurt sauce with cucumbers and mint, toum (a garlic sauce used with shawarma and some vegetables), homemade hot sauce and a couple of spice blends such as za’atar and Lebanese seven-spice. 

Resourceful sourcing

There are also no nearby specialty markets devoted to Indian or Pakistani products, says Dawn Gonzalez, manager of the newly opened Pakistani restaurant Biryani Express AVL, owned by Najeeb Raja. The two cuisines are similar, she says, though nihari and haleem stews are unique to Pakistan, and biryani is the signature rice dish of the region.

“The only place we have found in Asheville to source some authentic Indian spices and ingredients is Foreign Affairs [Oriental Market], but otherwise we have to order and ship them in. All of our meat is halal, and we special order it and go to Charlotte or Greenville to get it. We do bake our own bread — naan, roti and paratha.”

Ricardo Carrasco was born and lived 31 years in Tampico, Mexico, followed by one year in Charlotte before he came to Asheville four years ago to open Polanco restaurant on Market Street. He’s also faced challenges in sourcing authentic ingredients in his new home.

“I was really lost when I moved here, because Asheville is not a very diverse city, and I was worried about finding my product,” says Carrasco. “When I first opened Polanco, I had a guy in Charlotte that would send a truck with what I needed.”

In time, though, he has found multiple specialty markets where he sources various items. “I like [Tienda] Los Nenes for meat,” he says. “They have a full-on butcher shop, and I don’t have to explain what cuts I need. Taqueria Muñoz has a certain type of chili I use, and while I’m there, I grab a couple of the tacos from the restaurant.”

Carrasco gets goat, frog legs, duck quarters and other hard-to-find proteins at M&M Meatlocker in Hendersonville. He’s also a big fan of Smiley’s Flea Market in Fletcher. “It’s like the Taj Mahal of Latin foods,” he says with a laugh. “It’s the closest to a mercado in Mexico I’ve found here.”

His under-the-radar source for Latin products is the Sav-Mor grocery on Patton Avenue, which has an extensive selection of everything from fresh and dried peppers and banana leaves to canned goods, large bags of maize and packaged corn husks for tamales.

The Sav-Mor is in the same shopping center as Tamaleria and Tortilleria Molina, which Jesus Molina Sr. and Jesus Molina Jr. opened in April, after operating a location in Weaverville for six years. The small store sells tamales, empanadas and carnitas and makes fresh corn tortillas while customers watch. A paper-wrapped package of 34 corn tortillas is $3.25, and Molina Jr. says they deliver to restaurants.

“A lot of people think they don’t like corn tortillas, because they have only tried the ones in the plastic bags in the stores, and they are horrible,” says Carrasco. “I used to drive to Weaverville twice a week for his — they are the best, and I’m glad they’re in town now.”

Carassco and his business partner, chef Santiago Vargas, a native of Lima, Peru, were deeply immersed in plans to convert Polanco into Pachama5 — a tapas restaurant showcasing Peruvian, Mexican, Cuban, Venezuelan and Argentinian flavors — when COVID-19 caused them to tap the brakes. They are now planning a February opening.

Culture shock

There is no lack of Asian markets in Asheville, but the written and spoken language barrier and huge scope and unfamiliarity of products present obstacles for the English-only shopper. “It can be overwhelming,” admits chef J. Chong. Since leaving her position as sous chef at Cúrate last spring, the Toronto-born chef has offered pop-up events celebrating the Cantonese cuisine of her childhood, started selling fresh-made dumplings at tailgate markets and launched Instagram cooking classes.

“I offer to go with friends [to Asian markets] and help guide them, but I can’t do that for everyone,” says Chong. She does have some advice, however, particularly about navigating her twice-weekly destination, YZ Asian Market on New Leicester Highway, owned by brothers Jerry and Tim Cheng. Allow at least an hour for shopping, she urges. And take your time, making sure to go up and down every aisle where shelves are jampacked with products.

Like conventional American groceries, YZ arranges aisles by category: rice, noodles, canned goods, pickled and dried products, sauces and condiments, salty and sweet snacks, produce and refrigerated items and freezer cases. Unlike many local grocery stores, there are also tanks with live lobsters and Dungeness crabs. “I grew up with that so I was excited to see YZ has the tanks,” says Chong.

In her cooking classes, Chong demonstrates recipes that are accessible enough to replicate but unusual enough to give home chefs a sense of adventure and accomplishment. She always shows the products she uses, including the brand, which makes it easier to shop for unfamiliar items.

To stock a simple inventory of ingredients key to Asian cooking, Chong starts with soy sauce, a staple about which she admits she’s a bit obsessive. “I buy Pearl River Bridge — one light and two dark, which I use more for cooking.”

Her preferred brand of sesame oil is Kadoya. “A little goes a long way, so buy a small bottle if you don’t cook Asian regularly,” she says. Also in her pantry is jasmine rice, which she eats every day, as well as Shaoxing Chinese cooking wine, white pepper and corn starch.

From the produce bins, she buys ginger, scallions, garlic, mushrooms, bean sprouts, bok choy and leafy greens, especially gai lan, which is like a Chinese broccoli rabe. Finally, a wok is essential to Chinese cooking, and she recommends the carbon steel ones YZ carries.

“Don’t let the shopping experience intimidate you,” she says. “Think of it as the Ikea of food.”


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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One thought on “Food is the universal language at Asheville specialty markets

  1. “[Suzy Phillips] helped kickstart Asheville’s food truck scene with Gypsy Queen Cuisine”

    Though she had to first overcome the city’s ban on food trucks.

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