Local Exotics, Ethnic Markets Abound In Northwest Arkansas

By D.R. Bartlette

ffw 1119 coverNo matter where your taste buds want to travel to — from down-home Southern faves to exotic dishes from the farthest corners of the globe — Northwest Arkansas has the restaurants, cafes and taquerías to satisfy.

But what if your interest in global food is even deeper? What if you want to create your own curries, nori rolls or moles? What if you want to try something more adventurous for Thanksgiving? Though mainstream grocery stores often have an aisle

(at most) devoted to Asian or Latino foods, for an authentic flavor, you’ll need many of the unique ingredients that can only be found in our local ethnic markets.

South Of The Border Flavor

Many traditional Latin American foods are familiar to those of us in the U.S.: Corn, hot peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, peanuts, cashews, avocados and tomatoes, as well as fruits like pineapple, watermelon, papaya and strawberry. Even chocolate and vanilla originated in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America).

Latino cooking, however, is a rich blend of many culinary traditions: Those of the different indigenous people throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, the Spaniards (who were in turn influenced by the Moors), and those of the Africans brought here as slaves.

Thanks to a decades-old growth in our Latino population, Northwest Arkansas has a goldmine of tiendas, or markets, selling goods from all over Latin America. We’ll focus on a few noteworthy local spots:

Tienda El Salvadoreno 1431 S. School Ave., Fayetteville

This tiny market resides in a former gas station on the corner of Sixth Street and U.S. 71 B. It’s part of a three-store chain owned by Lionel Aguilar. Here you can find the mainstays of Latino cooking: jars of mole, masa mix (for making tortillas), Mexican herb teas, sodas, paletas (popsiclelike frozen fruit treats), and some fresh fruits. You can also sit down for a hot, freshly made pupusa — a staple of El Salvadoran cuisine. Pupusas are handmade corn tortillas stuffed with a variety of ingredients, such as beans and cheese or pork carnitas. Don’t let their small size fool you; they are filling. Brush up on your Spanish, though — English isn’t always spoken here.

ColumbiaMex 2155 Sixth St., Fayetteville

A well-stocked tienda, ColumbiaMex sells a wide variety of Latino foods, including many medicinal herbs, as well as beer and wine. Fruitflavored sodas, in varieties like grapefruit and tamarind, line the cooler.

According to owner Rafael Marquez, this is the only local shop that has a Mexican foods tienda, a meat market and a restaurant in the back.

“We’re a very traditional restaurant,” Marquez says. His wife, co-owner Maria, often cooks the tacos (traditional tacos are served on soft corn tortillas), burritos, tortas (small sandwiches) and tamales “to die for.”

“We have a secret recipe,” he says, “but it’s guarded better than KFC.”

Victoria’s Tortilleria & Cafe 304 Sunset Ave., Springdale

This bustling market sits in one of the more industrial parts of Springdale. The building is divided into two halves: one half is the loud, squeaky tortilla factory, and the other half houses a full-service cafe. You can order from a full menu of traditional Mexican favorites, such as tacos, burritos, menudo (spicy beef stomach soup), barbacoa, tortas and tamales. Either sit down at a booth and wait for your waitress, or walk up to the window for to-go orders.

The tortilla factory seems to be the big draw here, though. A steady stream of customers filter in, leaving with stacks (or coolers full!) of fresh corn tortilla wrapped in foil or in clear plastic bags.

Flavor From The Far East

The term “Asian food” can encompass many different types of cuisine. China alone has several different regions, each with its own style of cooking. Japanese food, with its predominance of fish and raw foods, is very different than Thai food, which relies more upon local spices and coconut milk.

Seoul Oriental Food and Gifts 729 S. School Ave., Fayetteville

At 15 years old, Seoul may be the oldest ethnic market in Fayetteville. Owner Hyz Kyong Um is the fourth owner of the store, which specializes in Chinese, Korean and Japanese foods. Large bags of rice — several different varieties — fill one corner of the small shop. You can choose from rows and rows of different brands of soy sauce, fish paste and herb teas. The selection of noodles — both

rice and buckwheat — is impressive. There is also one wall of frozen foods, including many kinds of fish, dumplings and sweets.

Um also carries almost anything needed in an Asian kitchen — cooking utensils, chopsticks, tea sets and sushi mats, just to name a few. Many of the foods she carries don’t have English labels on them, so don’t be afraid to ask.

P&N Oriental Market 1209 S. Thompson St., Springdale

Owners Peter and Phansri Ninkham opened P&N nine years ago and may have the best-stocked Asian market in the area. P&N carries foods used in Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian cooking — from giant dried fungi used in soups to coconut milk to rows of curries. They carry some fresh produce and an ample supply of frozen seafood.

While this reporter was visiting the store, the Rev. Kerri Mueller, cominister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, was shopping for ingredients for a Thai dinner.

“The (vendor) ladies at the square sent me here for galangal, a root similar to ginger, but with a more earthy, piney flavor,” Mueller said.

Indian Foods

There aren’t many options for making your own Indian food in Northwest Arkansas. Indian food, like Thai food, uses several kinds of curries, but like China, has many different regions, each with its own cuisine (and language — there are almost 30 languages spoken in India). Fish and lamb are common meats, because Hindus won’t eat beef and Muslims and Jews won’t eat pork.

Stop & Go Indian Grocery 1307 W. Hudson St., Rogers

Stop & Go is inside a Shell gas station, but its small size doesn’t impede on its selection. Stop & Go carries several varieties of masalas, spices, chutneys and sweets, in addition to the mainstays of rice and dals (lentils and peas). In addition, there are henna powders and pastes, Ayurvedic remedies, cartons of incense and ornate glass smoking pipes.

Haribabu Papisett, a Fayetteville resident, says he comes in about twice a week for groceries. “I cook (for) myself,” he says, which makes him a frequent visitor.

Beware, though — with so many languages spoken in India, many items don’t have English labels, and the staff may not be able to read the label, either.

Categories: Features