Rumor has it that Boulder is #1 for being ranked #1 in various “best of” lists (“Looks best naked!” “Most trust funds per capita!” “More marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks!”). However, it doesn’t usually win many awards for ethnic diversity. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t people from all over the world living beneath the Flatirons; it’s just not as obvious as say, in Brooklyn. For food lovers especially, there’s a hidden world worth exploring, one dotted with many small tributes to far-flung flavors.
This piece is the first of a series dedicated to Boulder’s ethnic grocers. One of my go-to recipes on any given night is a simple Thai curry.
As long as I have a tub of Mae Ploy curry paste in the fridge and a can of coconut milk in the pantry, I can improvise the rest. Those two ingredients are crucial, however, and it is because of them that I discovered Asian Seafood Market. Tucked into an uninspiring strip mall on the southwest corner of Valmont and 28th Street (a place we will visit again on our Boulder world-food tour), Asian Seafood Market is not really, as its name implies, dedicated to seafood. You can find fresh tilapia, yellow bullhead, and milkfish in the cooler, but most of your time will be spent poring over the shelves and stacks of non-perishable items from all over the world. Reason #2 that the shop’s name misleads a bit: in this case, “Asian” is as inclusive of Argentina as it is India and Taiwan. It makes a bit more sense after you meet Maria Nguyen.
First an emigrant from Vietnam to California in 1978, in 1987 Maria headed further east to Colorado, following her mother, who had left the California smog for cleaner air. She claims that her allergies, which were serious enough to require daily medication, resolved almost completely after one week in the Rocky Mountain state. Just as quickly, she became the new owner of an existing Vietnamese market in Boulder, a position she has maintained tirelessly, seven days a week, most days of the year, for the past 25 years.
I have to be completely honest and say that, until this interview, I was somewhat. . . skeptical of Maria. I would dash into the store, grab my curry paste, approach the register (where she is often huddled in front of a small tv, watching dubbed Vietnamese movies), and duck out of the store in a period of about 5 minutes. Once, as I was checking out, she encouraged me to take a ziplock baggie of two small sesame seed-encrusted buns–bahn cam, as I have since learned–and then proceeded to charge me for them, although her offer had seemed much more like a gift rather than a suggestion. As I spent the afternoon with her recently, I saw her do this to other customers, as well. But–for each customer she “offered” them to, there were just as many who picked up a bag on their own. Her strategy worked.
Another success of Maria’s has been her willingness over the years to stock foods that people ask for. Case in point: yerba mate. This Argentine staple item is something Maria has never even tasted herself, yet she offers over 10 varieties in the store. In fact, when I was there one afternoon, a young Argentine family came in and purchased some, along with a jar of Mayoliva, an Argentine condiment.
The Argentina section of the store occupies a corner with Nepal and India. Nearby, you can visit Thailand, Korea, China, Japan, and Vietnam, too. Most customers, however, do a bit of a world tour before they bring their goods to the counter where Maria will ring them up, using the dull end of a ballpoint pen to tap the prices out on the keys of the register. One man’s bounty consisted of a jar of Kimchi (Korea), bulk instant Ramen noodles (Japan), a package of Chinese-style sausage, and a bunch of scallions. Another man, who visits Maria every few months to stock up on specialty items such as fresh lemongrass, sweet chili sauce, and dumpling wrappers, was picking up a few things for the Indian dal he was making to go alongside his Thanksgiving turkey.
It’s likely that if you walk into Asian Seafood Market with a recipe for an Asian-inspired dish, you will find what you’re looking for–and more. If you can’t find it, tell Maria–she might do an Internet search and order some for the shop. Or perhaps her husband will pick some up in Houston–he drives a truck there weekly and returns with produce, seafood, and fresh rice noodles. Many of the products found in the aisles, piles, and coolers were acquired in that manner and lend to the haphazard charm of the store. No matter who you are–chef, college student, immigrant–or what you’re in search of–mochi ice cream, mustard seeds, or salted duck eggs–take a moment to chat with Maria while you visit the store. Her worldview is as inclusive as her inventory, and if you get lucky, she might teach you a thing or two about food–or life.
Asian Seafood Market
2829 28th Street
Boulder, CO 80301
M-Sun 10am – 7pm