By John Dolen
City & Shore Magazine
It happened on one of my first forays into the exotic world of the Foodtown supermarket, tagging along with my daughter-in-law, May, who is from Thailand.
Hard to forget the scene: There I was, a big guy holding open a flimsy paper grocery bag while this slight woman with the cheery face and long black hair, huge tongs in her hand, was tossing live crabs into the bag.
Two curious men and a small child were watching this intently as busy shoppers wandered all around, some winking at me as they passed by.
They observed as May was carefully rummaging through the pile of live crabs, a big writhing mess of claws in a metal tank, turning over the ones she deemed meaty enough. When she’d find one to her liking, she’d clasp it with the tongs, shake off any that might be clinging on for the ride, and toss it into the bag.
Having never handled live crabs this close, I’m just hoping one doesn’t punch through the bag or grab my hand on the way in.
But May’s skills are sure, honed through years of foraging through similar bins or her family pond near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
It was 10 years ago that we first discovered Davie’s Foodtown – and the enclave of Asian eateries surrounding it at a Stirling Road mall.
Before this, on one of our first shopping trips to Publix, May was so disappointed with the seafood. “Where are heads and tails of fish?” she asked in frustration.
That was a call to action to me. We were able to find a small place off Griffin Road with a limited catch. But when we checked out Foodtown, it was all over.
Not only were there 50-60 varieties of fresh fish available, there were the crabs, the shrimp, the crayfish, the fresh oysters, the eels and the frogs.
Yes, live eels and frogs. Much to my alarm, dozens of eels were slithering around in a small tank. Next door was a less kinetic but very crowded bunch of live frogs, eyes eerily peeping above the water’s surface.
Moving to the meat counters, you find all the cuts of meat you’d expect in regular supermarket, and more: pigs’ feet and intestines, chicken feet, whole ducks.
How about some noodles? There’s an entire aisle dedicated to varieties from all over Asia. How about rice? Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese or Latin brands such as Goya and Iberia – bags up to 25 pounds each. They fill two sides of an aisle and spill out over the end into even more banks that go right up to the halal butcher shop.
Yes, that’s right, halal. Middle Eastern and Arabic foods are here, too. In fact, with a massive produce section and 18 aisles of foodstuffs, teas, condiments, sauces, sweets, snacks and spices from Peru to Indonesia, we could call this South Florida’s United Nations of Groceries.
Oh, did I mention the little Chinese bakery on site with confections such as red-bean rolls and mung-bean dumpling cakes?
Or the Indian “food court” serving two dozen fresh-cooked Indian dishes from chicken tikka masala to lentil dal, to eat in or to go?
Or the little packages along the Brazilian and Colombian aisle with promising properties? A pouch of “Maca” from Peru, for example, is labelled the “Incan Superfood – Natural Virility Booster.”
The strip shopping center that Foodtown anchors has gotten so popular over the years it’s hard to find a parking place on Saturday or Sunday. The shoppers themselves are a cultural feast, some dressed in saris, others wearing a hijab, the Muslim head scarf.
After the seafood, the busiest area is always the produce section, which accommodates a wide range of palettes from back home, wherever home is. That’s not to say you can’t get the standards from Publix, but Foodtown sells dozens of vegetables and fruit from Latin America and Asia, things like Korean daikon, galanga root and giant jackfruit.
May is always on the lookout for bargains, whether it’s Chinese broccoli, Thai herbs, oyster mushrooms or standards like ginger and cilantro, which she maintains are fresher and cheaper here.
In our household, May does the seafood cooking, whether it’s boiling up crabs and crayfish or broiling whole fish. In the last dish, she gets the head and tail. Once she pointed out a small morsel. “It’s the brain,” she said, smiling. “You want to try?” I declined, and she laughed.
Another favorite of ours are the pig intestines. They don’t look all that inviting in their natural state, but when May and her brother, a sushi chef in Boca Raton, clean and sauce them up to barbecue on the grill, they are out of this world.
The Foodtown supermarket is owned by an Indian family which also owns a sister store in West Palm Beach. If Foodtown is the anchor to this mall, outstanding Vietnamese eateries have been a longstanding complement. Most prominent and largest of these is Pho 79, which seats up to 80. My son and daughter-in-law had been to several pho places since they got together, but May, coming from a country where everything is cooked with fresh ingredients, is our expert.
“Pho 79 is the best,” she pronounced years ago and hasn’t changed her mind. She and my son relocated to Gainesville for five years to attend college. On visits back to visit my wife and me, the five-hour trip back would usually end with a quick stop at our house to unload. Then, it was a dash out to Pho 79.
Pho 79 had become so popular it had to expand four years ago. Mostly Asian families check in there, but others have found it too. The service is abrupt and no-nonsense. But once your order is taken, the food appears quickly. There are 14 variations on the pho – a steaming broth with noodles, meat, seafood or tofu, and fresh basil, sprouts and veggies to add in. There are rice and vermicelli dishes, appetizers, so-called “small bowls” on the side and 10 Vietnamese specialty drinks (non-alcoholic).
Besides the freshness of its food, Pho 79 is budget-friendly, which explains why so many families fill the booths and tables. The bowls of pho come in three sizes priced at $8.25, $9.45 and $11, and the last one is huge.
There’s another winning formula next door at the 545° Banh Mi Café. The number refers to the bread oven’s ideal temperature: perfect for baking the fresh baguettes that make the banh mi sandwiches. Sandwiches come in pork, chicken and beef varieties. My favorite, Korean barbecue beef and lemongrass, comes on a hot fresh baguette for under $5.
The tiny shop is also popular for the smoothies, Asian teas and desserts. There are ones many Americans may be more familiar with, like Vietnamese iced coffee, but others like artichoke iced tea and fresh sugarcane juice. The smoothies come Asian style, with little tapioca bubbles at the bottom, which you can decline. (I do as I get my usual “soursop smoothie.”)
Our Foodtown enclave daytime stops are similar to those I’ve detected by many other families. First, a bowl of pho at 79, sitting down for a meal. Then, grocery shopping. Finally, either stashing bags in the car or in a cart in front of 545°, for a final stop to pick up smoothies or exotic teas and desserts.
But the star of the show in the end is Foodtown. This wonderland of a grocery is a world unto itself. You never know what you’ll spot in here. Even the snacks are entertainment: forget Pringles (which they also have, near the beer and wine section). Try crispy seaweed. Or how about the potato rice chips under the label “Lonely God?”
Can’t find that just anywhere.
IF YOU GO
Foodtown, 6431 Stirling Road (at the intersection of Davie Road), Davie. Other eateries besides Pho 79 and 545° Banh Mi Café to explore in the Foodtown enclave:
Brandon Asian Café serves beer and wine and Vietnamese cooking that is more formal and exotic (like frog legs in butter). A standby for decades is the tiny A Thai Restaurant next door, which serves Thai standards.
Hanjin, the Taiwanese equivalent to a local ice cream shop. The eats here are shaved ice concoctions called “Snow Cream,” coming in a host of flavors and toppings from chocolate to fruit combos.
The two newest entries are on the west side of the mall. The 16-seat Tasty Café Restaurant features Hong Kong and Cantonese dishes. The smaller Mama Tofu & More highlights vegan fare, and offers congee, crêpes and ramen.
Photo: Pho with chicken, rice noodles and fresh herbs, courtesy