In the east Portland area, two grocery stores cater to the local Asian communities: Hông Phát Market on Northeast Prescott Street near Maywood Park and Hông Phát Food Center on Southeast 82nd Avenue and East Burnside Street. Thu Ha, a longtime employee and manager at the Burnside store, told the Memo that Hông is the Vietnamese name of the owner, Brandon Wang, and Phát translates to “prosperity.” The Hông Phát stores cater primarily to customers of Asian and Pacific origins: those from Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Philippine, Polynesian and other Asian cultures. Although there are other Asian markets, Hông Phát serves a broad base of customers for both personal and business needs.
When people immigrate to a new country in search of a better life, leaving behind all that’s familiar, they seldom leave what is in their hearts and their memories. Settling into their new, often strange home may be all they can manage at first. Once that’s done, they again seek out what is dear to them, what sustains them.
Sometimes, they find other emigrants from the old homeland through their religious institutions and social centers—or at least social services where someone speaks their native language and understands their customs and needs. Most learn their new home’s language, but until they reach some mastery of it, their birth language is what helps more when immediate needs emerge: medical care, getting legal help, registering children for school, and the like.
If enough of their former countrymen settle in their chosen location, businesses and services geared to their needs and preferences will begin to show up. Primary among these services are spiritual traditions and food.
Eateries come first—food carts, small cafes, then restaurants. Restaurateurs face the challenge of finding the groceries they need to reproduce familiar dishes. Some of these will exist in the new community, while others must be replaced, often unsuccessfully, by local products and by finding importers who can access the herbs and flavorings required. Enter the ethnic grocery marketer: sometimes centered on food services, sometimes a mercantile offering everything the immigrant family needs.
Hông Phát Market, established in 2003, is in a classic neighborhood-sized grocery site—the former Parkrose Market location on Northeast Prescott Street near Maywood Park. The oldest of the two stores, it is exclusively directed at personal-use customers. Walking into the outer front area, the shopper confronts large stacks of several varieties of bagged rice, packages of dried noodles and coconut soda.
Once inside the actual market, large stacks of oranges, big solo papayas and huge jackfruits (a tropical fruit native to India for over 3,000 years and popular throughout Southeast Asia; they are available fresh and packaged—the latter for customers who don’t want the struggle of removing the outer skins and processing the fruit).
Wandering down the first aisle past a cold case containing pickled items, tofu and kimchi, the browser finds cooking vessels of many sizes, utensils and dishes. Most are familiar to the Western eye, while others reflect their Asian origins. Food is not the only representative of Asian culinary practices; the means of cooking are just as important. Some of these implements, like the electric rice cooker, are now found in Euro-American homes.
Passing shelves of bagged snack foods, products of both America and Asia, the shopper reaches a long back shelf, as well as one between the two long, open freezers. Packaged mixes and dried herbs and powders fill these shelves, many that are familiar to Euro-American taste buds and many others that are mainstays in Vietnamese, Cambodian and Philippine cooking. Large varieties of frozen fish, baby octopus, mullet, Goby fish, Indian mackerel, tinfoil barb fish and many others fill the freezers.
The varieties of packaged foods and condiments include some that are found on the international section’s shelves in Fred Meyer and Safeway, including hoisin sauce, chili sauces, ramen, rice vinegar, five spice powder, curry powder, chili, sesame and grapeseed oil and many brands of tea.
However, a large selection of more Asian-identified items challenges the Western cook to try something new, like lemongrass powder, salted duck eggs, wider varieties of curry powders, lychee and betel nuts, dried silver fish, bitter melon, muoua and more.
Sausage-makers will find refrigerated pork blood for making blood sausage and, reflecting the French influence in Vietnamese cooking, frog legs. The influence of French cuisine is especially present in the French/Vietnamese pastry selections. Hông Phát doesn’t make its own, but they do carry pastries from local Vietnamese bakers.
Hông Phát Food Center, established in 2013, is in a former Safeway building. It carries everything the Market does, and much more. Owner Brandon Wang had a modernizing vision for the second store.
The Food Center includes a juice bar and deli, Lotus Kitchen, where customers can pick up a healthy juice and a sandwich (most popular is the bánh mì) or food trays for special events. The Food Center has its own processing operation for Vietnamese ham.
In addition to a large private customer base, the Food Center also markets wholesale to restaurants and other grocery stores. Customers come from Beaverton, Hillsboro, Vancouver and all over the Portland area. There is a regular customer who comes all the way from Redmond in Central Oregon.
Part of the popularity of the two stores, according to Thu Ha, is owner Wang’s engagement with the local Asian community. “If you want the community to come to you,” she said, “you give back to the community. Brandon gives back.”
Mr. Wang comes from a family of restaurateurs. Some of his siblings are involved in the Portland Asian restaurant scene.
Like many culture-based businesses, shopping at a Hông Phát often includes socializing with friends and family members, speaking comforting birth languages with others and sharing news and recipes. Two women I met at the Market were discussing a favorite recipe and the varieties of spices each of them used. They were friends, attending a local church, but reflecting the hesitancy of immigrants who fled persecution in their home of origin, they chose not to share their names—though they were very willing to share their cooking expertise and happy to hear I was writing about their favorite market. Other acquaintances have seen Vietnamese people as distant and unfriendly. I have never found them so. Among people who have endured persecution, especially for their religions, caution is a watchword. “You could be beheaded for being Roman Catholic,” Thu Ha says. “Over one million people escaped from Vietnam to America,” she tells me. Both Christians and Buddhists faced religious persecution by the Viet Cong.
Here, though things are not always perfect and racial prejudice still rears its ugly head, religious freedom often exists in ways it never could back home, wherever that may be. These women agreed that whenever any of them share a meal together, or even shop in these Asian-friendly grocery stores, they can enjoy some of the good things they left behind. The food and its traditional preparation is a tradition they can carry forward because stores like Hông Phát have made the commitment to providing what is needed to do so. Food unites people, and culturally familiar food provides an important sense of coming together among family members, friends and the community. It gives hope.
Hông Phát Market
9819 N.E. Prescott St.
Portland, Oregon 97220
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Hông Phát Food Center
101 S.E. 82nd Ave.
Portland, Oregon 97216
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Lotus Kitchen Fruit Drink Bar and Deli
Inside Hông Phát Food Center
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.