No foray through Houston’s culinary landscape should ignore Fiesta, the supermarket giant that first opened in Houston in 1972 and has since expanded throughout Texas. Fiesta’s ethnic-aisles section introduced many shoppers to specialties from all over the world. Look for creamy white cheeses from El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico; basmati rice from India and Pakistan; popular Central American fruits like guayabas, papayas, and plantains; Mexican Coca-Cola, vanilla, tortilla presses, and glass jars for serving aguas frescas; spices and seasonings used throughout Thailand, Vietnam, and India; soda pops from Jamaica and Brazil; breads and noodles from Germany and Poland; and intriguing Spanish-language soaps and cleaning products, many of which promise good luck and/or success in work and romance with their regular use. My floor has never been so sparkly!
El Bolillo Panadería
With more than 700 Mexican restaurants, plus countless mom-and-pop markets and bakeries, it’s not hard in Houston to find delicious tortillas, pastries, or other staples of the Mexican table. But some of the freshest and tastiest varieties come hot out of the ovens at El Bolillo, which does a booming business on Airline Drive, next to the city’s oldest farmer’s market (market opens daily). Here, you’ll find more than 40 kinds of handmade buns, rolls, cookies, and various Mexican pan dulce (literally, “sweet bread”), including addictive sweet potato empanadas and a coconut-studded pastry that marries perfectly with a cup of hot coffee.
While you can find Japanese vegetables, noodles, and ingredients for making sushi at most large supermarkets these days, for a pure Japanese shopping experience, seek out tiny Nippan Daido, Houston’s only dedicated Japanese market. Here, you’ll find brilliantly pink sashimi-grade tuna, delicate enoki mushrooms, some 20 varieties of tofu, plump bean sprouts and daikon radishes, beautifully designed packages of udon, buckwheat, and somen noodles, ceramic tea and sake sets, lacquered-wood chopsticks, gift-worthy jars of green teas and dried seaweeds, imported shampoos and cosmetics, and a wide selection of Japanese beer and sake. Kampai!
Moon and Star
The approximately 3,000 Houstonians of Turkish descent probably rejoiced four years ago, when Moon and Star, the city’s only market specializing in products from Turkey, opened for business. More than 90 percent of Moon and Star’s goods come from Turkey, including several varieties of tangy feta cheese and more than 15 kinds of Turkish red pepper, a coarsely ground, slightly moist seasoning grown near Maras, Gaziantep, and Urfa. (Use it alone, or mix it with oregano, cumin, salt, and black pepper to form a spice mixture called baharat, which is delicious on American or Turkish-style pizza.) You’ll also find lots of olive oils, mineral water, fruit juices, jams, soaps, nuts, coffees, and candies.
Russian General Store
In 1997, former St. Petersburg etymologist Alex Kogan met fellow Russian Houstonians and kindred spirits Anna Levitin and Natalya Levin. With their shared interest in Russian culture, the three kicked off a nonprofit organization called the American-Russian Cultural Exchange, which provides books, videotapes, and other items of interest to immigrants from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Today, the Exchange occupies the back room of the trio’s Russian General Store, a cozy shop on Hillcroft that bursts at the seams with goods from Russia and the former Soviet republics, as well as from Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Germany, and other countries. What do the three owners recommend? Along with Russian red caviar (affordable at $20 per pound) and any of the store’s 70 kinds of salami, try their spicy Russian gingerbread, and don’t pass up a jar of Russian cherry preserves or a bottle of Georgian wine. Hand-painted enameled rings and bracelets, birch-bark paintings, and amber beads make great gifts, too.
In 1979, when pita bread and other Mediterranean staples proved hard to come by in Houston, brothers A.J. and Fayez Droubi opened a small bakery. “Soon, I was distributing our fresh pita all over town,” says A.J. It didn’t take long for the brothers to expand, and within a short time they found themselves importing goods from throughout the Middle East and Europe. Make a trip to any of Droubi’s four locations for cheeses, olives and olive oils, spices, and canned goods, and don’t overlook Droubi’s fresh breads and pastries, which are baked daily at the 7333 Hillcroft store and delivered to the other three locations.
Try a flat loaf of traditional zatar bread—a pita baked with oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seed, and olive oil. In his home country of Lebanon, says A.J, “We ate zatar bread every morning to help us excel at school.” Droubi’s also offers a daily buffet, where you can sample such Mediterranean dishes as kibbi, a bulgur-and- meat patty known as the national dish of Lebanon; lemon chicken prepared with cayenne and basil; or eggplant stuffed with lamb, cardamom, mint, and tomato.
Hong Kong City Mall
On Houston’s west side, the bustling stretch of Bellaire Boulevard between the Sam Houston Tollway and Dairy Ashford Street bombards the senses. If you didn’t know you were in Houston, you might think you were in the Pacific Rim. Street signs appear in Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean, as do the names of restaurants, travel agencies, doctor’s offices, fabric stores, beauty salons, and other retail establishments.
And then, at the intersection of Bellaire and Boone Road, you spy the fountains, the concrete pools full of blooming lilies, and the upswept Chinese-style pagodas of the enormous Hong Kong City Mall—the largest Asian mega-mall in the Southwest. Inside, dozens of businesses, including noodle houses, bakeries, candy shops, record stores, and gift emporiums, sell goods ranging from whole roasted ducks and cucumber-and-cilantro-garnished sandwiches to Hello Kitty chocolates, synthesizer-heavy Viet-namese pop music, scrumptious (and addictive) tapioca-pearl “bubble teas,” and plastic toy sumo wrestlers.
For food tourists, the big draw remains the Hong Kong Food Market, a mega-grocery that stocks Chinese red-bean ice cream next to Eggo cinnamon-toast waffles, a dozen types of ketchup alongside 40 varieties of garlic-chile paste, gigantic steamer baskets and strainers, tea sets and woks, and so many peculiar vegetables, fruits, herbs, noodles, meats, breads, and condiments, it’ll make your head spin (and your stomach rumble). You can also join a guided tour and sample dim sum.
Phoenicia Specialty Food Market
It all started with a delicatessen. When Houston’s economy took a nosedive in the early 1980s, Lebanese architect Robert Cholakian and his wife, Arpi, began to sell Middle Eastern shawarma pita sandwiches, falafel, tabouleh, and other mezze (appetizer) staples from a deli in West Houston. Today, along with the successful deli business, at a market called Phoenicia Specialty Foods, the Cholakians supply goods from throughout Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean to stores such as Fiesta and H-E-B, and they also open their doors to the public.
Here, you’ll find row upon row of pickled sweet peppers and olives, beets, and other vegetables; a dozen different mustards and more than 20 olive oils; herbs and spices like lemony sumac and intense zatar; more than 50 kinds of jams and jellies from throughout the Balkan states and beyond; music from Greece, Turkey, and Armenia; Persian tea kettles, hookahs, and other housewares; nuts and seeds galore; and a fascinating selection of meats, sausages, and cheeses. I filled my cart with jars of Croatian plum butter and Bulgarian pumpkin preserves, Polish chocolate biscuits and a few Russian candies, fruity Lebanese olive oil and a tin of Lebanese nuts, and several packages of tangy-tart Armenian pomegranate nectar.
In mid-November, Phoenicia will move to its new, 60,000-square-foot space across the street, which Robert envisions as a grand Middle Eastern specialty-food market, complete with a bakery, meat market, and ready-to-eat deli items.
Polish Food Store & Deli
How’s this for complicated: When Andrzej Szpak came to Houston from Poland to visit his sister and her new husband, he fell in love with his brother-in-law’s sister, Sharon. Love conquered all, and Andrzej moved to Houston and married her. There was just one problem: Andrzej couldn’t find authentic Polish sausages (kielbasa) anywhere in town.
So, after ironing out a few details and locating reliable importers in Chicago for Polish kabanosy, boczek, jalowcowa, and other traditional sausages, the Szpaks opened the Polish Food Store & Deli. Andrzej and Sharon stock a wide variety of products from Poland, including more than 30 kinds of jarred mushrooms; a dazzling collection of pickled items, from cabbage and cucumbers to beets; frozen pierogis; and souvenirs like flags, T-shirts, and caps. Order a sandwich at the deli (Andrzej recommends Polish ham with a bit of bacon, Swiss cheese, pickles, and lettuce on rye), or, for a more elegant experience, venture next door to the couple’s Polonia Restaurant, which serves authentic dishes like roasted pork shank cooked with beer and horseradish, and cabbage rolls (golabki) accompanied by potatoes.
Fiesta has more than 30 locations in Houston, plus stores in Dallas, Plano, and Austin. Check www.fiestamart.com.
El Bolillo Panadería is at 2428 Airline Dr. (713/861-8885) and 7610-D Office City Dr. (713/643-2625).
Nippan Daido is at 11146 Westheimer; 713/785-0815.
Moon and Star is at 6134-B Westheimer; 713/977-0042.
Russian General Store is at 9629 Hillcroft; 713/721-7595.
Droubi’s is at 7333 Hillcroft (bakery; 713/988-5897), 2721 Hillcroft (largest; 713/782-6160), 7807 Kirby (713/790-0101), and 3163 Texas 6 in Sugar Land (281/494-2800).
Hong Kong City Mall is at 11205 Bellaire; call Hong Kong Food Market at 281/575-7886.
Phoenicia Deli is at 12116 Westheimer; 281/558-0416; Phoenicia Specialty Food Market is currently in the same shopping center, but will move this month across the street, to 12141 Westheimer; 281/558-8225; www.phoenicia foods.com.
Polish Food Store & Deli is at 1900 Blalock; 713/464-9900; www.poloniarestaurant.com.