Jacksonville’s thriving international community adds much to the food culture of The First Coast. Chef Dennis Chan, author of Hip Asian Comfort Foods and owner of Blue Bamboo Restaurant, took us on his weekly shopping circuit of some of his favorite Asian markets in Jacksonville.
Chef Dennis is no stranger to accolades. His Southside Boulevard restaurant, Blue Bamboo, was named one of the best restaurants in the Southeastern United States. But as we shopped local markets, he didn’t draw attention to himself. Instead, he lauded the people behind the counters and shared why these are the best Asian markets in Jacksonville.
Sue Produce Beach Boulevard Flea Market
“One of the unique things Sue and her husband do is prep veggies for stir fry,” Chef Dennis says as we walk through Sue’s well-stocked produce stall. Each bag of veggies is freshly chopped and only $1.50. Green plantains, bok choy and Japanese eggplant are neatly displayed next to unfamiliar veggies. Chayote, a bright green pear-shaped squash draws my attention. “It’s a good neutral base for sautés & stir fry,” Chef Dennis informs me. “It tastes like a green tomato but not quite as sour.”
Sue Chaiyo has operated her Beach Boulevard Flea Market “Sue Produce” for three years. She’s there 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and is usually prepping her stall on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Chef Dennis likes to shop on Saturdays, since she’s fully stocked then.
Purchasing straight from the owner has many benefits. “If they have any questions, they can ask me,” Sue says. “Some people cannot eat food they spray [with chemicals], and I will point it out.” Hard pressed to select a favorite veggie, Sue gestures to the variety of bananas she carries in her stand as a highlight. “Apple bananas are short and fat,” she says, handing a bunch to me.
“You can only find these here,” Chef Dennis adds.
Sue lifts up a large “hand” of slim, miniature bananas in contrast. “These are baby bananas. They’re very sweet.”
Realizing that I like bananas, Sue hands me a tightly wrapped green packet. “We call it sweet sticky rice.” The pliable banana leaves fold back to reveal a banana hugged with coconut milk infused rice. Sue shares that in Thailand, these are often used as offerings at temples.
“It’s a little sweet, a little savory… it’s a great breakfast on Saturday mornings when I come here to shop,” Chef Dennis says. “She’s the best Thai cook I know.” Years ago, Sue had a stand that sold Thai food, but she closed it when she left to visit Thailand. Now she sells a few Thai treats from her produce stand.
I left Sue Produce with both kinds of bananas and flower shaped Thai Cookies for my kids. Chef Dennis recommended the peanut sauce, which compliments grilled chicken, noodle salad, or a quick stir fry. Sue also stocks basic Thai pantry items such as soy sauce, sriracha, noodles, coconut milk and local honey.
“It’s just like the perfect Saturday morning treasure hunt!” Chef Dennis laughs as we juggle the camera, notepad and spoils from our morning on the way to the car as we set off to our next destination.
La Salsa Market
I’ll admit, I was stumped by a Hispanic name on an Asian store. I learned this is the second store Sreyrath “Sara” Meas built—her first was a produce stand geared toward an Asian clientele. When she opened her current store, La Salsa, she marketed it as Latin so she wouldn’t compete with the other business. It didn’t take long for her old customers to find her. “She has been a great businesswoman, growing with what her clientele demands,” Chef Dennis says.
When you enter the warehouse-like space, Sara’s roots in produce are clear. This Asian store with a Hispanic name has produce I’ve never seen before, and Chef Dennis says there are some items he simply can’t find anywhere else. Hairy melon, durian, longann, green mangoes, yu cho…shoppers with Filipino, Laotian, Cambodian, and Chinese roots mingle and browse familiar produce. Sara’s business is booming. She has been constantly growing since moving into this Beach Boulevard location. When we were there, she was expanding her fresh fish market and burgeoning shelves of sauces, gadgets and snacks begged for more space.
“They have every spice I grew up with,” Chef Dennis tells me as we squeeze past other shoppers on a busy Saturday morning. “Sara stocks all these spice mixes in addition to the spices themselves. Pretty much anything you would use in an Asian flavored dish, she has it here.”
Jax Oriental Market
Our final stop, Jax Oriental Market, on Old St. Augustine Road, has been in business for over two decades. “This started as a Chinese food store. Over the years, they added Southeast Asian, Filipino, Thai and other foods,” Chef Dennis tells me as we walk toward the market. “It’s the most successful Asian Market in Jax.”
“They have everything really well organized here,” Chef Dennis says, and he’s right. The brightly lit aisles are neat, clearly labeled and well stocked. Even though I’m a rookie at shopping in these markets, I easily find my way to the sauce aisle. “This is sauce heaven,” Chef Dennis says.
As we explore, Chef Dennis points out his favorites. “I get my miso here,” he says, pointing to the refrigerated case. Fresh ramen are stacked nearby, prompting a discussion on the finer points of fresh vs. dried ramen. He has been experimenting for weeks with ramen, and is excited for the ramen he’ll be adding to the Blue Bamboo menu.
Another refrigerated case holds pork ears, pork blood, pork intestine, and duck feet. As put off as I remain by the contents, the packaging and the case is immaculate.
“This really is one of my major trusted purveyors,” Chef Dennis shares after we finish our shopping. He gestures toward the snacks and Asian treats aisle, “That’s what people miss when they come to a new country. Anyone who misses that little bit of home, they have that here.”
Bridging the gap from one hometown to another…that’s what Jacksonville’s Asian Markets are all about.