Viet Wah Group

Best Asian Empire

Behold the humble durian: the spiky, stinky Southeast Asian fruit that built a grocery empire. You may have heard of it, or even tasted it—a fruit so pungent it's been banned from public transportation in Singapore. Its odor has been likened to sweaty gym socks or rotting flesh, but the custardlike yellow flesh is prized for its smooth texture and unique flavor.

There was a time, if you lived in the Pacific Northwest and hankered after durian, you had to follow your nose to Vancouver, B.C.; U.S. import laws didn't allow the fruit to be brought into the country. But Seattle resident Duc Tran changed all that. A Vietnamese "boat person" of Chinese descent, Tran lobbied U.S. officials and won, catapulting his small import enterprise into the limelight. VIET WAH GROUP now operates two retail outlets in Seattle and is expanding to a third in Renton later this month.

At Viet Wah Superfoods on Martin Luther King Way, First and Third worlds collide. The signs on the walls ("Meats," "Dairy") look left over from the old Red Apple Market that used to occupy the building, but the selection of products on the shelves is decidedly exotic. Chuoi Say banana chips sit alongside tubes of Pringles; the varieties of rice alone boggle the mind. The new Renton store will stock a similar inventory, bringing Asian delicacies closer to Viet Wah's clientele in South King County.

The more compact Viet Wah Supermarket in the International District carries a smaller but similarly varied array of foodstuffs, plus Asian medicinal herbs and trinkets—think Uwajimaya on a budget.

Durian is available at all three locations, so you may want to hold your nose. Or just get used to it. Because in Viet Wah's world, that's the sweet smell of success.—Lynn Jacobson

 
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