New Asian market offers large variety

Sunday, June 8th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY - A new market opening in the heart of the Asian district differs from the stores scattered around the area many Vietnamese immigrants have called home since 1975.

This one stands the size of Wal-Mart, displays TV screens and greets guests with electric orange palm trees and a rock fountain. Inside, there's to-go food, a sushi bar, vegetarian meals and huge aisles.

"We're taking the best of both worlds -- Asian food and the conventional American grocery store," said Ba Luong, executive vice president of Super Cao Nguyen, which opens June 20.

Luong hopes to bring Asian foods and spices to those who do not normally set foot in a small Asian market like the one his parents opened 22 years ago after they immigrated from Vietnam.

The old store continued to expand but the demand outgrew the small place. When Ba's father, Tri Van Luong, decided to build a larger market, he turned the operations over to his 26-year-old son to transform the traditional Vietnamese market into a high-tech masterpiece of American shopping.

The market is not even open yet and cars of visitors keep stopping by to snap pictures in front of the water fountain and inquire when they can come in and look around.

"We get people driving by all the time asking when we are open and these are not traditional Vietnamese store shoppers," he said.

Luong has noticed a new clientele wondering through the cramped aisles of the old store. These customers, he said, are attracted to Asian cooking for its freshness and low prices.

"The vegetables here are cheaper than in our stores," said Margaret Hughes, 61.

Dozens of Asian markets line the area and another large Asian market, Hong Kong Market, opened in November in south Oklahoma City.

While Asian characters may confuse non-traditional shoppers, TV monitor pictures should point them in the right direction. Ba and his two brothers will help customers learn how to wrap spring rolls or cook Asian fondue.

Samples will be given out daily around the store and cooking demonstrations will help less Asian savvy chefs figure out their meals. Hughes said she needed someone to show her how to cook these specialty items.

"If they put a cooking school in here, they'd fill the place up," she said while pushing her cart through Hong Kong Market. "They need to have someone in here who walks around explaining stuff because you pick something up and say, 'What do you do with this?"'

The 48,000-square-foot building holds a bakery with fresh bread from La Baguette while the back of the store has a 15-foot saltwater aquarium with live fish, scallops and lobster to take home. The store includes a complete selection of produce, bamboo plants with assorted pots and fresh coconuts that you can stick a straw in and drink while you shop.

The new market will become more than just a market. Following the Asian tradition of markets as places for socializing, Ba decided to add a breezeway to house several new restaurants and a cell phone store. A noodle shop out of California is coming to the area as well as a Taiwanese restaurant that specializes in bubble tea -- a fusion of old and new Asian tastes.

The same cuisine that traditional shoppers have always enjoyed -- balut eggs (duck), pig feet, ox tail and pork hocks can be found in the new store. Ba said his customers of 20 years should be able to find the items they've been buying forever at the old store without too much trouble.

"With any type of change, there will be resistance but they have been asking for a bigger place," he said.

Melding the old and the new can cause clash, but the Luongs seem to think it is time for such a change. The Vietnamese immigrants have watched their three boys grow up in Oklahoma and adapt to American culture. The sons see the store as a way to express their Asian traditions in a more American setting.

Poommaree Ellis drives from Taloga to shop at the Cao Nguyen store.

"I think it is a good idea they are moving," she said. "The other one is too little."

The new store will open just around the corner from the old one with a much larger parking lot. It won't be hard to find, just look for the electric orange palm trees.