The Asian mega-grocery store Viet Hoa -- or "Pacific Produce" in English -- opened quietly at the end of 2010 and word of mouth slowly attracts curious shoppers to the large, arched building that once housed a Kohl’s Food Store.
Pacific Produce, 5455 S. 27th St., offers a full line of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai food along with Asian cookware and gift items. It’s located in the Pacific Gateway Plaza, which also features a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Viet, a coin laundry and a nail salon.
There are two "fast food" restaurants on the south end of the grocery store: a Vietnamese sandwich shop and a Thai eatery. The Vietnamese sandwiches -- called bahn mi -- are served on large hoagie buns topped with pork, chicken, steak or tofu and cost a mere $3-3.50 each.
In general, the Pacific Produce’s prices are extremely affordable. On a recent visit, we spent $50 and walked away with two large bags of frozen shrimp (only $5.99!), three bottles of various spices (galanga powder, curry powder and something called "wasabi salt"), a dragon fruit (which tastes kind of like a kiwi), a few boxes of Botan Rice candy, a bag of Hello Kitty candy, a massive mortar and pestle (had to have it; don’t know why), a few packages of "joss" paper (gold paper that’s traditionally burned during Chinese funerals to ensure a fabulous afterlife), bamboo toothpicks, tofu (both plain and deep fried chunks), an 18-ounce bottle of Sriracha (best price in town: $2.49), a package of Thai noodles, bottled Thai coffee, lime juice, a lemongrass soup base, cilantro, a large container of peeled garlic bulbs (another great deal at $1.14), a few cans of mushrooms, snap peas, fish sauce and a bag of dried red chilies.
If we had more cash and an even more adventurous spirit, we might have selected deli items like cooked ducks complete with bills (well, half of their bills), live lobsters, tongue, tripe, brain, kidneys or pig uteruses. There is also a large selection of eggs, including small spotted quail eggs as well as already-fertilized eggs.
The bakery items were a bit more tempting, and included tiny ball-shaped sesame cookies, "peanut snowballs" that looked very much like Hostess Sno Balls, bean paste cake and coconut layer cakes that looked like they are made from green Jell-O.
We commented on the availability of foods sold in cans like jelly, quail eggs and tea. We also made note of produce items that were unfamiliar to us but piqued our interest, like taro fruit (grown in the Pacific islands and used by Hawaiians to make poi), kabocha fruit (looks like a zucchini), mame nashi (dwarf pears), Korean melons, lychee, pomelos, lotus slices, purple yams and more.
On a side note, the aforementioned dragon fruit that we bought at Pacific Produce was quickly consumed and is now a fruit favorite. To eat it, simply slice the fruit in half -- on the outside it looks like a pink-leaved artichoke -- and dig into the soft white-with-black-seeds "meat" with a spoon.
"Eat it like a bowl of ice cream," says OnMilwaukee.com staff writer, Bob Purvis.
Pacific Produce’s rice aisle and noodle aisles are almost overwhelming. Bags of Jasmine or sweet white rice range from standard 16-ouncers to 25-pounders. The noodles aisles -- yes, there are two of them -- feature hundreds of different Asian noodles, including rice noodles, broad bean and tapioca strips. Many of the noodles look the same, but are made by different companies.
Hopefully, Pacific Produce someday will obtain a liquor license and sell Asian libations, too. For now, the grocery store's selection and quality appear appealing, however, their long-term success hinges on the ability to keep food fresh, and to do so, items must move from the shelf quickly enough to be restocked with newer groceries. In short, Pacific Produce needs enough shoppers to make this work, and hopefully, Milwaukee is able to support a large-scale Asian market. (Which, by the way, is not part of a larger chain.)
No doubt about it, on our first visit, we only scratched the surface of Pacific Produce possibilities and plan to return regularly. Next time, however, we might bring our Korean friend Melissa with us to take us a few steps further into Asian cuisine. Pig uteruses excluded, por favor.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.