There's a stretch of Kingston Pike just past West Hills where the excitement of the mall and the newborn Trader Joe's fades into a length of road that's not quite as vibrant and exciting as it perhaps once was. It's a close-quartered lane of business with car-related services, a laundromat, and a payday-loan place alongside the discount retailers and chain restaurants that have anchored this strip of the pike for many years.
But if you look closely at this array of stolid commerce, you'll find there's plenty of bustle and excitement in what may be one of Knoxville's most unexpected commercial developments. Over the last five years, the area along Kingston Pike from West Hills to Walker Springs has nurtured a growing corridor of international food stores—or, in pure Knoxville argot, a little world's fare district. Shopping options encompass the globe and include all sorts of exotic and unusual foods, from the famously foul-smelling durian fruit to the delightfully sticky and sweet Turkish delight. Here's a quick tour of a few of the businesses that are spicing up Knoxville's international flavor.
For the last three years, from a space in the Downtown West Shopping Center, Bhavin Patel has been serving Knoxville's Asian Indian community, which, he opines, exceeds a thousand families. Opening the India Market (1645 Downtown West Boulevard, Suite 26) was a natural result of the growth of that community. Before Patel's nearly full-service grocery opened its doors, outlets for Indian ingredients were either small storefront operations or, perhaps, limited to a shelf or two in other Middle- or Far Eastern-oriented groceries; a few major grocery chains might have carried some generic curry powder, Major Grey's chutney, and basmati rice. So Patel answered the call.
"There was a need," he says. "We needed a good grocery store. We have coffee, tea, breakfast things, cookies, Indian produce—everything that people need."
Patel's operation is a reasonably large, open, and well-lit grocery, complete with a wide selection of dry goods, a bank of freezers, and a small meat cooler where you can stock up on goat meat. In the fresh produce section, Patel stocks herbs and vegetables, including Indian eggplant, bitter melon, Chinese okra, and the very special tindora. Also known as the ivy gourd, tindora is an important (and until recently in Knoxville, hard to find) ingredient featured in the cuisine of southern and some eastern Indian states where it gets treated to all sorts of preparations, from simple stir-fry to more complex dishes with nuts and coconut milk gravy.
Patel's stock list covers the bases for many Indian families—and the rest of Knoxville, too. Patel estimates that 20 percent of his customers are American. "You can see them with their lists from cookbooks, and sometimes they eat something next door [at restaurant India Cuisine] and are curious to know how to cook that," he says. These shoppers buy a wide variety of goods, from tandoori chicken paste to Lay's Masala Madness potato chips. "They have a lot of interest in spices," Patel says. "Everything what we eat, they want to eat that."
Even though he's selling a wide variety of goods to all sorts of shoppers, there's a distinct interest in Indian spices, particularly the pungent combinations of ginger, peppercorns, and chili peppers—fresh and dried—that sometimes give the cuisine a distinct warmth. Despite misconceptions that all Indian food is born in the inferno, Patel insists that by and large, it isn't that bad. Cooks looking for authentic flavors don't need to worry about adding chili for a mouth-burn.
"Using a little of the authentic spice for that [particular] recipe will get to the right heat."
Even so, Patel isn't sure that most Americans are ready for the kind of heat that comes with the pursuit of the unofficial Scoville heat unit called "Indian hot." But if that's a goal for your dinner, Patel's method is simple. "For hotter, we add Thai chili or red chili."
Mi Pueblo, like any pueblo of merit, is a comfortable and familiar space. Upon entry, a wall of candy and salty treats grabs the eye and, to the left, chest-high stands of crispy snacks in foil bags rest by a bank of coolers where familiar soft drinks mingle with exotic juices and sodas that feature flavors of coconut, tamarind, and aloe. The smell of food wafts over from the taqueria that's located in the rear corner, as well as from the meat counter and fresh vegetables that sit in the back of the store behind shelves of tortillas and dry goods and tall displays of spices and dried herbs.
The folks who developed the successful La Esperanza market on Whittle Springs Road are also responsible for this grocery and taqueria combo that's just a few doors down (1645 Downtown West Boulevard, Suite 17) from the India Market. Although their original reason for opening this outlet was to serve the needs of the Latino population on the west side of town, they've attracted a wide variety of shoppers. In fact, unlike many other ethnically oriented groceries, manager Karina Ayala says this market serves a fairly equal blend of cultures. At any given moment you might see a housewife buying tortillas or a flashy metrosexual stylist from Salon Visage grabbing a bottle of guava nectar.
As with the India Market, having a restaurant close by—or in this case, in the store itself—creates business from curiosity seekers. Ayala observes that lunch guests get adventurous with their taco choices and then head over to Mi Pueblo's meat counter.
"They try lengua, cabeza, and pastor tacos and they want to buy it for home—especially the pastor," Ayala says.
It's hard to say whether Ayala's customers exhibit a natural curiosity or one that's fueled by hearing Anthony Bourdain wax poetic about the authenticity of the taco al pastor—a taco (shepherd's style) made from marinated pork cooked on a spit like shawarma or gyro but tenderized with pineapple juice as it cooks. What is certain is that many of her non-Latino customers are finished with Mexican food kits from a box.
Last year, a local food club ordered 50 copies of a Mexican cooking magazine from Mi Pueblo; Ayala points to that as evidence that "people are really getting into Mexican flavors—not just food from cans." The range of products that they sell to home cooks has expanded from the familiar to more varied expressions of the cuisine. She notices that "before it was only jalapeños that people bought, but now they want to take home all kinds of fresh and dried peppers—like ancho and chipotle."
But Ayala is certain that food media inspires many of her shoppers. "It's like this spice, aciote molido—they used it on Iron Chef or another show, and now customers are asking for it," she says.
Quality Turkish Market
Twenty-two years ago, Huseyin Sazil (or "A.J." as friends call him) found himself stranded alongside a Nashville road. While the name of the road where he stood with a broken-down car has faded into memory, he clearly recalls that several people stopped to help him.
"I thought, wow, this a friendly place—no wonder they call it the Volunteer State," he says.
His wanderings then led him to Knoxville, where he settled because it reminded him of his hometown, Incirlik, where a U.S. Air Force installation is based in south central Turkey. After a previous business partnership ended, Sazil realized that, after two decades of living here, there was nowhere to find even the simplest of Turkish foods.
"You couldn't even find Turkish olives and certain kinds of cheese and meat that are a part of a classic Turkish breakfast," he says. So, a little more than a year ago, Sazil started doing business.
Located in the suite of shops that runs parallel to Downtown West Boulevard between Kingston Pike and Ray Mears Boulevard, Quality Turkish Market (8078 Kingston Pike, Suite 121) is a small operation with room to expand. The shopper base is diverse but draws heavily from Knoxville's Turkish community—a growing demographic with its own cultural center on Middlebrook Pike. Still, Sazil says that there are plenty of curious non-Turks who wander into the shop "looking for different kinds of ingredients."
The market also serves a blend of dedicated food lovers, curious cooking clubs, and a few world travelers. In the last month, as word of his operation spread, Sazil has met more and more of those shoppers, including "a couple of ladies who just wanted to have a Turkish dinner party," he says. "There are also a lot of people who have been to Turkey and want to try that kind of food at home."
Sazil offers not only the building blocks for a traditional meal but some expertise, too. "I was cooking Turkish food in a restaurant for a while, but all these ingredients have good instructions on the labels," he says.
Many of those folks also come looking for gear that's essential for Turkish cooking, particularly the pots and serving ware for Turkish coffee and tea.
Sazil stocks plenty of dry goods, from olives to sweets, but you can also find frozen foods, including the famous Turkish dumpling, manti. He sells an outstanding homemade baklava, which, he's careful to note, isn't restricted to Greek cuisine. "Of course, they introduced it to this country, so it's considered a Greek thing—but it's not only in Greece that you find it," he says.
One of the most important ingredients that he stocks is just starting to attract some attention. "Salça is a pepper paste, a specialty that's very important in Turkish cooking," he says.
Sazil observes that the average visitor to his shop buys a lot of different goods. "They usually start with some feta cheese and, when they come back for more, then they'll try some different things," he says.
Many of those shoppers wander in when they see his sign after a meal at the Vietnamese restaurant Bida Saigon, which is just across the way in the same plaza, but he already has a growing set of dedicated shoppers who "know what they want—say, bulgar for tabbouleh and, of course, the Turkish delight."
Sazil has hopes for a deli counter and, someday, a place for teaching Turkish cooking styles. "There's some demand—people want to try new things."
Mediterranean Food Market
Situated beside Ali Baba Time Out Deli, the Mediterranean Food Market (8373 Kingston Pike, Suite 100) is a cozy little shop that has been in business for about five years. The aisles here are compact but not Lilliputian: coolers and freezers occupy two sides of the shop, and there's a small section near the front door that houses hookahs. Sometimes a greeter sits at the front counter; most likely, that's the shop's current proprietor, Mohamed Hafez. He bought the operation a little more than three months ago after a varied career in sales, including a stint with the previous owner.
Hafez doesn't think of his shop as a particularly unusual or exotic one.
"We sell normal things that are used in everyday Middle Eastern cooking," he says. Because of that, the shop can get crowded after 5 p.m. as people stop in for dinner supplies and the place gets the feel of a comfortable neighborhood store. The customer base reflects that notion—Hafez estimates that about 90 percent of his customers are a mix of Pakistani, Persian, Egyptian, and other Middle Eastern nationalities.
Hafez says that the handful of Americans who shop there have some direct connection to or experience with the Middle East. "They're people who have been to Jordan or Cairo, and they want to recreate that food experience," he says. "Sometimes they're people who have married someone from the Middle East."
Hafez sells a lot of falafel, gyro, and tahini. He stocks olive oil from the West Bank, lots of cheese and yogurt, and a select offering of produce, including eggplant, Middle East zucchini, and a special variety of cucumber.
What stands out in this market is the selection of halal meat. Halal—which is Arabic for "permissible"—is a method of ritual slaughter and processing that's similar to the kosher designation. Hafez regularly stocks beef, lamb, and goat and, around Thanksgiving, he carries halal turkey. Both halal and kosher proteins find some favor with buyers because they consider the method of slaughter to be more humane (though animal welfare groups may have a difference of opinion on that).
Still, Hafez says his business is rooted in the everyday cooking needs of people who are already familiar with falafal, fatoosh, baba ghanouj, and tas kebab, a typical lamb stew; he doesn't see many weekend warriors looking to cook what they've seen on the Food Network.
From the outside, it could be any not-so-new grocery. But once you pass through the single-lane automatic door and enter Sunrise Supermarket (8509 Kingston Pike, at the Walker Springs plaza), you experience the kind of scene found in the Chinatowns of major cities. The initial sights and smells that greet your entry are exotic, heady, briny, and sometimes earthy in a way that announces the presence of food that's not too far removed from its natural state. The aisles of bok choy, chive blossom, dragon fruit, mangosteen, and other fruits and vegetables lead past a broad assortment of packaged meat, organs, and assorted body parts (from head to tail and all points in between).
A butcher and seafood counter in back offers everything from honeycomb tripe, beef shank, and rib-eye to whelks, shrimp, and assorted fish heads. Beyond the counter there are large tanks that house live Dungeness crab and tilapia, and at the far side of the counter a shallow metal basin holds small blue crabs that snap their claws at the air as shoppers pause to consider their merits.
Now five years old, the Sunrise Supermarket remains the largest and most complete of international grocery stores in the region, and walking into it is a food adventure. While Sunrise is well supplied with products from Taiwan and mainland China, it's a unique operation that can't quite be summed up as a Chinese grocery.
When manager Jackie Chao moved from Atlanta to help create this cornucopia of exotic goods, it wasn't easy to find an exact niche. "Knoxville's pretty different from Atlanta," he says. "It was hard to start, to know where to focus, because it's a literal melting pot here." In fact, Chao estimates that the store's customer base is only about 30 percent Chinese and that the majority of those shoppers are students. Chao finds it difficult to parse the rest of his customers, since the market's appeal extends to the Korean, Thai, Philippine, Caribbean, European, and Russian populations that call Knoxville home. "By moving here and expanding our business, I got to know a lot of different cultures," Chao says. "We have a pretty diverse crowd."
It's understandable—the local big-box grocer doesn't usually offer much in the way of durian, duck heads, or pickled gouramy fish. But Chao says the majority of his new, non-Asian customers are looking for items that they've seen on TV. And, despite what you might think, it's not just an Iron Chef or Bizarre Foods obsession. Chao estimates that "about 50 to 60 percent of those customers are looking for things they see on Dr. Oz—a lot of produce and shirataki or magic noodles." (These noodles, made from soluble konjac root fiber, got a big thumbs up from "America's Doctor," though their actual health properties are not conclusively proven.)
Chao figures that many of those new customers "are buying produce and about 20 percent or so come for seasoning and spices—but we have a lot of non-food items, like tea pots and dishes, that people really like, too."
Chao counts a lot of local chefs as customers. "They get their woks here."
As the diversity of Sunrise's clientele keeps growing and changing, so too does the product mix, which keeps Chao and his team on the ball.
"Now we're adding more high-end Japanese and Korean products," he says—and the small Caribbean section is also growing.