Some may remember the days when Am-Ko was the only Asian grocery store in town. Today, one can choose from perhaps more than half-a-dozen Asian grocers, all of them locally-owned and run as family businesses. Each grocery store has an ethnic focus – Chang’s is Chinese, Lee’s is Korean, Annapoorna is Indian, Am-Ko is Korean and Japanese, and so on. Of these choices, my favorite place to shop is Far East, hidden on Fifth Street just south of University Avenue. Until recently, you probably wouldn’t notice it was there because the only identifying mark was a few hand-painted words on their building. The colorful new sign that just went up may make the shop slightly easier to find.
Far East has the best selection of fresh produce among all the Asian grocers. In addition to typical Asian veggies such as nappa cabbage and bean sprouts, Far East carries some very exotic produce like banana flower, taro stalks, green papaya, lemon grass, chive flowers and my personal favorite: ong choy (also known as kangkung or “water spinach”). This seasonal leafy vegetable is usually prepared very simply – sauteed with garlic and salt and served as a side dish to your favorite meal. Owner Cuong Diep drives up to Chicago twice a week so the vegetables are always fresh. He also brings back some prepared foods such as roast duck or barbecue pork buns which are nearly sold out as soon as they arrive.
Cuong Diep is of Chinese descent, but grew up in Vietnam – so it makes sense that his grocery store focuses on Chinese and Vietnamese products. He’s also the only grocer in town that carries products from Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines. Far East may also be the best stocked Asian grocery store in town as their shelves are always full and the store is so jammed with stuff that it’s a challenge to walk around. Regulars know that Tuesdays and Fridays are the best days to shop as there are usually new loads of goodies stacked all around the store and a fresh batch of veggies have just arrived.
Shopping locally is always better than shopping at chain stores because more of the profits end up staying in our community. Even though Meijer’s does carry a wide range of Asian produce, I still prefer to do my shopping at Far East. Regulars are greeted as friends and the owner and his family are right there ready to make recommendations and help find what you want.
Far East Oriental Grocery
105 S. Fifth St.
Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. every day