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Southcenter has a hit with Filipino, Asian food

Eating on the Edge: Filipino cooking is the truest form of Asian soul food, enriched by wide borrowings from other cultures. The new Seafood City supermarket at Southcenter, where lines for the grill counter can run long, is a gift.
Long lines greeted the new Seafood City's grill counter and restaurant.

Long lines greeted the new Seafood City's grill counter and restaurant. Hugo Kugiya

Some of the offerings at Seafood City's Grill City

Some of the offerings at Seafood City's Grill City Hugo Kugiya

Seafood City is at the Westfield Southcenter mall.

Seafood City is at the Westfield Southcenter mall. Hugo Kugiya

As an exercise in community building, consider the recent opening of the Seafood City supermarket in the north end of the Westfield Southcenter mall in Tukwila, an unlikely place to find what you could call Seattle’s Little Manila. In this sometimes chaotic end of the mall, you can buy Filipino music and videos, ship a package to relatives back home, do your grocery shopping for the week, have a whole fish cleaned and fried on the spot, and eat a Filipino breakfast, lunch or dinner at one of several restaurants in and affiliated with the store. The truest form of Asian soul food, Filipino cooking reflects all of the country’s immigrants, colonizers, and conquerors, borrowing from the Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and Americans, evolving similarly to the way the food in Hawaii has evolved. The cooking tends to be salty, rich, informal in preparation, and not altogether healthy. In other words, incredibly delicious. While Filipino cooks and chefs are common, Filipino restaurants are not. For this reason alone, Seafood City is a gift. People waited in lines more than 100 feet long for a take-out meal at the grill counter (called Grill City) in the store, and at the Chowking restaurant just outside the entrance of the supermarket. (Philippine-based Chowking combined Western fast-food service with Philippine-style Chinese food.) Reaching the front of the line took more than one hour. Some came prepared with snacks to eat. The grand opening of the nearly 44,000 square-foot store two weeks ago was a kind of tipping point for the Filipino-American community in the greater Seattle area, whose numbers will likely come in at more than 100,000 after the 2010 Census is complete. The community, once it reaches a certain size and weight, creates the store, and in turn, the store creates the community. If you do not live in Southern California, if you are not Filipino-American or close to someone who is, you probably have not heard of Seafood City, a chain of stores that claims to be a home away from home for Filipinos living in America. The chain is most heavily represented in Southern California, where almost a million or about one-fourth of all Filipino-Americans live. There are seven stores in Los Angeles, four in San Diego, six in the Bay Area, and two in Las Vegas. The Southcenter store is the first and only store in the Northwest, although as the Filipino diaspora in America grows so do the number of Seafood City stores. The company plans to expand into the Northeast, tapping into the Filipino-American communities in the New York borough of Queens, the eastern counties of New Jersey, and the northern counties of Virginia. "Being located in a mainstream American mall is a significant step for us," said Catherine Quien, manager of the Tukwila store. "It sets us at another level compared to other Asian supermarkets." More than a grocery store, Seafood City is a marketplace in both the traditional and modern sense. It anchors other businesses like Chowking. Next to it, Tokyo Tokyo serves Filipino-style Japanese food. In the coming weeks, two more franchises will open across from Chowking, the Red Ribbon Bakeshop and Jollibee, which serves hamburgers and fried chicken, Filipino style.  In the store, there is another bakery, Valerio's Tropical Bakeshop, the Grill City restaurant and Atlas Cargo, which specializes in shipping packages to the Philippines. The food is, for the most part, not made to order but made in advance. But the customer volume is so high that the food almost always is fresh. Trays of grilled meats, stews, and fried noodles are gone before they go cold. The idiosyncrasy of Filipino food is what I find most charming, the combination of sweet spaghetti and salty fried chicken and Chinese-style noodles, mixed with Portuguese sausage. The aisles of Seafood City are wide, well-lit, and generously stocked liked most American supermarkets. At one end is the store’s crowning feature, several rows of open bins filled with ice and whole fish of unrivaled variety, intended to mimic the feel of a busy fish market in Manila. Shoppers point to what they want; employees bag and weigh the fish. There are the usual salmon, snapper, trout, tilapia, catfish, tuna, mackerel, grouper, and yellowtail. But what makes Seafood City special is its variety of smaller fish, milkfish, pompano, mullet, smelt, scad, minnow, and, yes, sardines. I wrote several weeks ago that fresh sardines are virtually impossible to purchase retail; Seafood City has them. It might be the only place you can find them. This being south King County and not the Philippines, the store will never capture the look, feel, and smell of an Asian fish market, nor does it want to. Seafood City is not a Filipino store; it is an American store after all, headquartered in California. Rather than duplicate the experience, it captures the experience, the way Whole Foods or Starbucks captures the experience of harvesting produce from the farm, or drinking espresso in an Italian café. My first reaction to Seafood City was to compare it to Uwajimaya, a similar, more familiar institution. Both are big, new, clean and inviting. Both sell groceries and prepared foods, and share space with other like-minded businesses. And, most obviously, both cater to the Asian community. But Uwajimaya’s cultural positioning is entirely different. In theory, it is a Japanese-American store, although it is more accurately a pan-Asian store, selling Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino specialties and even Hawaiian groceries. The reason seems obvious. Most Japanese-Americans in Seattle are two, three and four generations removed from the homeland and are likely products of mixed marriages and hardly identify much with the Japanese culture anymore. Immigration from that country slowed to a trickle long ago. So Uwajimaya cannot afford to sell to just Japanese-Americans and the relative few Japanese ex-pats in Seattle. It tries to bring in other Asian-Americans and non-Asians who simply like Asian food, which has become mainstream in Seattle. While Seafood City has also made itself approachable to the mainstream, its heart-and-soul customers still speak their native language and still have family ties in the Philippines. In that sense, Uwajimaya and Seafood City are quite different, the former having a very specific denominator, the latter having a very specific one. Although Seafood City sets a new standard, the concept of a large, Asian, supermarket is increasingly familiar in the suburbs, like the Ranch 99 Chinese markets in Kent and Edmonds, and the Pal Do Korean grocery in Edmonds. Seafood City is further proof that the stage for the American immigrant experience is set not so much in the heart of cities anymore, but in the outer edges and suburbs. "This is a place where they can all gather and feel like they're back home," said Quien, who grew up on the island of Mindanao and attended school in Manila. "That's what this is about, the feeling of home. If you listen carefully, you can even hear people speaking some of the dialects from home." If you go:Seafood City marketplace, 1368 Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, 206-246-7400, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.


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