Bellingham’s ethnic stores offer foods from
around the globe
A quick tour of Bellingham’s restaurants reveals a not-so-hidden secret: This town has a taste for ethnic food.
From pad thai to Russian dumplings, it seems Bellinghamsters like to live vicariously through their taste buds.
But such culinary adventures are not exclusive to local dining establishments. With a little cooking knowledge and a quick trip to one of several specialty grocery stores, the world can open up right in your own kitchen.
With a palate for a passport, the BBJ visited three specialty grocers to find out what makes them so special.
To the average passerby, Mediterranean Specialties may look and feel like a Greek store — it has gyros and sweet baklava and fancy olive oil — but its roots are Lebanese.
Marie Boulos came to Bellingham from Lebanon 26 years ago and now runs the store with her younger sisters, Nahala Gholam and Dorine Boulos.
The idea of opening a Mediterranean-themed grocery store first started as a way for their family and friends to get the comfort foods they grew up with in Lebanon. But the idea quickly became more than that.
“We decided that if we were going to do well, we needed to go big,” Marie Boulos said.
Though the country is geographically in the Middle East, Lebanese food is strongly influenced by French and Greek cuisine. But the store reflects a much broader region than that.
From Spanish wines to Turkish coffee to the Bouloses’ own brand of Lebanese olive oil, almost every taste from the Mediterranean region has a spot on the shelf. And Boulos knows where everything goes.
“I know all the items in the store and where they come from and how much they cost,” she said. “And I’m always looking for something new to carry, otherwise it gets boring.”
Boulos, with her knack for organizing, runs the store, and her two sisters run the other half of the business: the kitchen and deli. This arrangement works out well, Boulos said, as it plays upon each person’s strengths.
“We’re very close and we understand each other,” she said.
For example, Gholam loves to cook and teaches monthly cooking classes at the deli. Between her and Dorine, everything in the deli is made from scratch.
After seven years in business, the sisters have built a regular customer base and know a vast number of them by name. Some customers keep coming back for the foreign flavor, and yet for others it is the taste of home.
Every few years, Boulos travels back to Lebanon to get that true taste of home. She said she is sometimes torn between Bellingham and the land where she grew up. Her entire family now lives here, though, which makes it easier to come home.
“Your heart is always scattered between two places, but I love it here,” she said. “Even when I go back to Lebanon, I want to come home [to Bellingham]. Once you live here, you can’t live anywhere else.”
Oriental Grocery & Bakery
If you like the almond chicken or another dish at Hong Kong Garden, be sure to tell the owner. Chances are he will tell you how to make it.
“Often I will tell people what ingredients and sauce I use and where to find them in the store,” said David Hung, who owns the restaurant and runs Oriental Grocery & Bakery next door.
The store has been in business for 12 years and started as a way for Hung to bring in traditional Oriental items that are not easily accessible. And with his restaurant he was already ordering large supplies of rice and sauces, so stocking a store was just the next logical step.
That’s why the store has 50-pound bags of rice and other restaurant-sized items, much like Costco.
“Costco doesn’t have a selection like this, though,” Hung said.
Rows upon rows of shelves are lined with soy sauces from different countries in Asia, each one with a distinct taste.
“People like what they are used to and they stick to that,” Hung said.
The store also carries a large selection of herbs and teas, from oolong to ginseng.
Hung is originally from China, but came to Bellingham in 1977 after spending several years in Hong Kong. Later, his sister followed him over and now runs the bakery in the store where she cooks up traditional cookies and steamed buns served with barbecue pork or mushroom chicken.
Though Bellingham is within driving range of two much larger cities with very diverse cultures, Hung said he found it tiresome to travel that far just to experience familiar food. And oftentimes, it’s just the simple things like steamed buns that can make a world of difference.
“This is the only place around here to get steamed buns,” Hung said proudly.
La Gloria Market
Tucked behind the King Carwash off of Meridian Street, La Gloria is more than just a specialty grocery store. Owner Petra Apreza wants her store to be a one-stop destination for the local Latino population, and she may soon be one step closer to that goal.
Last month, Apreza applied for a permit to expand her store by 1,600 square feet into a neighboring space where she plans to sell traditional Western wear. The store currently has a small selection of cowboy boots, leather belts and hats, but demand is high and Apreza said she wants to expand her selection.
“The Latino population has grown a lot since we moved up here in 1999,” she said.
The store also carries a wide selection of music and has five different money-wiring services that connect to most of Central and South America.
Apreza and her husband Ernesto also run the original La Gloria in Everson, which opened more than nine years ago and is named after one of Apreza’s relatives. In 2009, expect a big fiesta for the store’s 10-year anniversary, Apreza said.
The couple opened the Bellingham location — once home to Tienda El Polivoz, another Latino grocery — back in May and have seen the business grow quickly since then.
The Bellingham store is bigger than the Everson store and also has a kitchen and deli. For Apreza, this means she can offer traditional cuts of meat and cheeses that are not easily available in this far corner of the United States.
Carne seca, for example, is a type of seasoned and dried meat similar to beef jerky that is very popular among people from Northern Mexico.
Most of the items in the store come from regional distributors and are relatively easy to find: piñatas, dried chilis, and hominy corn. But some items are too rare to find through a distributor.
“We travel down to Mexico once a year and bring back items such as pumpkin seeds for green mole and avocado leaves,” she said. “California avocado leaves just don’t have the same taste.”
When it comes to creating a distinct taste, though, Mexican candy easily wins with its unique blend of chili, salt and lemon or lime.
“We have a lot of candy,” Apreza said. “The kids love that.”
Where to find them
505 32nd St. Suite 108
Oriental Grocery & Bakery
2517 Meridian St.
La Gloria Market
4140 Meridian St. Suite 100