Rochester's international grocery stores are hubs for culture, community and culinary delights
For people who come from places where English is the last language on the candy wrapper, a taste of home in Rochester isn’t as elusive as the surrounding cornfields might suggest. A thriving bunch of of international grocery stores dot the map here, thanks to the city’s significant population of communities from around the globe.
For the most part, these stores’ origin stories follow a similar trajectory: a family moves to Rochester from another country. They spend years driving back and forth from Minneapolis for groceries. Eventually, they realize there are others in the same predicament, so they establish a local grocery store. Most of these places don’t have a website, Facebook, or advertising budget — their existence depends on their reputation and ability to source quality ingredients from every corner of the globe.
“Everybody feels happy when they see their own country logo and language on the packages,” said International Spices and Grocery owner Najam Nisa. That includes her family. “From Pakistan we have many spices — the brand is the same, the package is still the same I used to see in my childhood.”
Some stores function as hubs for communities of one nation or another. Languages like Somali, Arabic, Cambodian, Greek, Bosnian, Kannad, Vietnamese can be heard and read in the same place — a rarity for a small Midwestern city.
“When they come here, like Vietnamese or Cambodian, they all come at the same time, they can shop and then they talk. It feels like home to them. Normally, they go to work, they don’t talk to anyone, and then they come back home. But when they come here, they can talk, they talk about food, what they cook, they ask each other about how are you and how they feel,” said Vibol Ly, partner at Lee Market.
International Spices and Grocery
125 East Center Street
According to many accounts, International Spices and Grocery was the city’s first international grocery.
Nisa and her husband were farmers in Pakistan until 1988, when they moved to New York City. By 1994, their family had grown to include two boys, and Nisa was none-too-keen on raising them in chaotic mid-90s New York City. The family visited friends here in mid-September with two suitcases in tow. They left them and a rental deposit in Rochester and moved here weeks later.
Soon after moving, Nisa began noticing more and more middle eastern patients at Mayo Clinic with similar shopping needs going unmet in the city. Then Bosnian and Somali people started arriving. The city’s Pakistani community was still too small to support a culturally-specific grocery business, they reasoned, so they decided to sell Greek and Mexican food in addition to Halal meat and Pakistani ingredients.
Today, a network of 25 distributors helps Nisa acquire items from as many countries as she can, in her effort to bring a bit of home to her customers. At times candy wrappers in German, Polish, and Russian will all house identical sweets. Cheese packages in a cooler near the back call out in Arabic, Greek, and English. She also prides herself on getting rare items in. She supposes, for example, that hers is the only shop in Rochester to carry saffron, an expensive spice
Fresh produce coming into the shop still floods her mind with memories of the farm in Pakistan, which has seasons similar to Minnesota’s. That country’s dishes utilize cauliflower, tomato, eggplant, with the addition of ingredients like ginger roots, turmeric roots, cumen, coriander, chili powders, teff, and palmolive.
If those ingredients seem like a challenge for home cooking, the adjacent restaurant features a buffet. Nisa said that many U.S.-born potential customers will poke their heads in, look around, and walk out. She said they should stick around to check out the buffet, which, in addition to more ‘exotic’ fares (to a North American palate, anyway) includes lamb and goat burgers, vegetarian burgers, falafel, hot naan, and gyros with fresh bread.
810 South Broadway Avenue
This Indian grocery shop used to occupy the corner of 4th and Broadway, next to a skate shop and a youth theatre. Now it’s on South Broadway between Taco Jed and Pizza Hut. In seventeen years, it’s grown from one double-door freezer to ten. Through it all, owner Jeevan Kanthi Rao has worn his former career as a men’s shirt designer in Bangalore, India on his sleeves. Literally. He’s usually wearing a shirt he designed almost two decades ago.
It’s an easy detail to miss in his expansive shop where he stocks thirty to forty varieties of lentils, various branded bags of Basmati rice sorted according to age and quality, flatbreads, curries, and a snack section with snack cookies ranging from fruit-frosting to plain baby cookies.
Rao came to Rochester in 1998 after moving from Bangalore, India to Minneapolis in 1997. His wife, a software engineer, had been offered a job here.
“Once I got my work permit, with my kind of skills, I couldn’t find the right job in Rochester,” he said. “I thought, well, there are quite a few Indians, not a whole very lot, but, future might be better, so, I followed my guts. I just started off in a small way.”
His goal: make newcomers feel like they’ve been transported back to India when they walk in.
“Once they see there is an Indian store, they’re very comfortable,” said Rao. “Even for a brief history, a patient for Mayo who stayed for three four days…. They find it very homely because they’re not missing a beat.”
His customers aren’t just brief visitors to the city, though - many live here long-term, some are temporary professionals at Mayo or IBM, and others make regular trips from neighboring states. 20 percent of his customers, he estimates, are lifelong Minnesotans. Most are Indian food lovers, of course, but he’s got a dedicated group of vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free patrons, too, thanks to the nature of his supplies.
Rao will tell you exactly what to buy if you tell him you’re not used to making Indian food on your own. If you appear like you’re a novice with Indian cuisine, he’ll tell you anyway.
“When anything comes to the counter, I double check what they’re going to do, how they’re going to eat. Sometimes, without knowledge, they’ll try to pick random things and bring it to my counter. Sometimes it’s okay, sometimes it’s not,” he said.
He watched and learned as his mother and aunt cooked up spices, lentils, and vegetables from childhood on, so he knows what to do, and, crucially, “how the spices are to be handled,” he said, laughing.
El Super Gallo No. 1
1831 24th Street Northwest
Owner Eugenio Perez operates his store with a simple goal: make people happy. A bright canopy of piñatas hangs above the space, which houses a grocery store, butcher’s counter, and a small lunch window.
Three years ago, Perez left 25 years of perfect weather in Huntington Beach, California, behind. He wasn't alone when he arrived here, though; his sister and brother-in-law have run El Super Gallo No. 2, 1831 24th Street Northwest, for years.
El Super Gallo is a bit of a one-stop-shop, where customers can complete money transfers, shop for groceries, buy meat from a butcher’s counter, get a hot meal, buy party or household supplies, and even procure religious artifacts like candles and statutes. Ingredients for recipes from Colombia, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Mexico. Bananas from Honduras, meat from Australia, produce from Ecuador.
At the lunch counter, he suggests ordering a gordita, a sope, or a huarache, if you feel like moving beyond tacos and burritos in a place with a rock-solid reputation. That reputation is shown by a constant flow of customers and occupied seats in the lunch corner.
“Too much people will come here, working very very hard. And this is here, take a little bit of space for relaxing, sending money to your family, and coming shopping for all you need in one week and come to eat,” he said.
He loves seeing families come in to eat at the lunch counter by the butcher. The mention of people enjoying themselves after working makes him gush with pride. “Come to Super Gallo Number One,” he told us. “Try it, only one time, and I’m very sure you’ll come back.”
Fresh bread shipments arrive on Saturdays.
1116 Ninth Street Northwest
Despite its gleaming appearance, Lee Market is hardly a newcomer to the Rochester grocery scene. Its owners used to run Rochester Oriental Food for the last decade. This is the same operation with a new name and more parking.
The shop’s focus is food from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with a growing emphasis on the Philippines. Ten years ago when the first shop opened, those populations were having a tough time finding the ingredients they needed for vegetable dishes like samlar machu and samlar kakou. Today, those items can be found among the tightly organized rows of noodles, snacks, sauces, and a line of freezer coolers with fish, meat, and greens. The beverage and snack aisles are refreshed constantly, with the overseas Lays flavors like grilled squid, roasted chicken wing, and cucumber as big sellers.
The shop also sells rare produce. To emphasize this point, Ly pulls a frozen durian from one cooler and explains that it might be the rarest thing he has. It’s $3.95 a pound. Fresh, it’s $10 per pound, or $100 to $200 for the whole spiky fruit. They bring it from Thailand or Vietnam.
A counter in the back serves boba tea and sandwiches. the most popular seems to be coconut and taro, but customers have the option of selecting real or powdered fruit flavors, including avocado.
Regulars know to come in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when they have fresh sandwiches. Of the three, Friday is the best, said Ly, thanks to an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other products.
Bryan Lund covers politics and culture for Med City Beat.
Cover photo: Jeevan Kanthi Rao of Rice-n-Spice
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