Ruta Smith

Had the poet John Keats come upon the saturated aisles of an Asian market on the south end of Rivers Avenue, rather than an ornate, classical Greek urn at the British Museum, the resulting ode may have gone something like this:

Thou still unravished cooler of bagged bok choy,
Thou foster-child of nam pla and kaffir lime
Urban historian, who canst thus express
An olfactory tale more pungent than our rhyme.

From the outside, it’s easy to underestimate H&L Asian Market. Set at the far end of a dispirited strip mall and surrounded by a vast, pothole-ridden parking lot, it might be surprising to learn how many decorated area chefs are navigating these same craters.

Kwei Fei chef/owner David Schuttenberg deserves his own parking spot. “I’m headed there now, for the second time today,” he laughs. “I love it there. I have a great team and they’re hard at work in the kitchen right now, but that’s not the only reason I do the H&L runs.”

Part of it might be that he knows the store like the back of his hand, “Other chefs will call me, ‘Where’s the Zhenjiang vinegar?” Third aisle, about 10 feet down, bottom shelf on the left.”

He goes there to source, well, just about everything needed to make his authentic Sichuan cuisine: amber-colored Shaoxing rice wine; Doubanjiang, a spicy fermented bean paste; and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, available in a variety of volumes and brands.

“It’s a great store. I love it. Granted, I have a heart attack if they’re out of something I need, but Kwei Fei never would have happened without them.”

Husband and wife-owners James Guo and Carina Lam’s eclectic grocery store stocks an awe-inspiring assortment of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Thai ingredients (not to mention an entire aisle of diverse Mexican and South American products). My local happy place, I’ve spent hours just wandering around.

Out of such meanderings has come a particular pleasure: staging products like canned, imitation (vegetarian!) abalone and fruit-flavored Chinese beef jerky in elaborate still-life photos.

This puerile form of self-amusement won’t get you far with chef/owner Shuai Wang of Jackrabbit Filly, however. “Nothing is unfamiliar to me in that store, but I am super surprised that they have pig’s blood in the freezer. I’m assuming it’s for blood sausages.”

If you’d like to speculate in-person (Filipino pork blood stew? Taiwanese pig’s blood cake?), you might find Wang near the packaged hemoglobin, “I love the frozen section! There are so many snacks, and I’m a fat kid. Fat kids love snacks.”

When he and wife Corrie moved here from Brooklyn in 2014, “We were like, ‘What are we going to eat? Where are we going to get condiments for our rice?’ I was very happy to find H&L. I remember walking in and going, ‘It smells like my parent’s grocery store,’ and that felt like home.”

Here, chef/owner Josh Walker sources for Xiao Bao Biscuit, picking up green papaya, fish sauce, and even the lone ghost chili pepper. However, if given $100 to splurge, he reports he’d be more likely to fill his cart with “a whole roasted duck, a green tea matcha waffle ice cream sandwich, a big bag of short grain rice, and a Pocari Sweat (the Japanese answer to Gatorade)” presumably to wash it all down.

Chef/owner Thai Phi — the brains behind popular pop-up turned soon-to-be King Street storefront Pink Bellies — is also no stranger to H&L’s chockablock shelves. “The variety of products they carry is really amazing,” he enthuses. “Asia is a huge, diverse continent and H&L manages to carry many ingredients from each country. There’s something for everyone.”

Case in point, he once ran into a legendary pitmaster and 2018 James Beard award winner somewhere between the stainless steel hotel pans and the fresh Thai eggplants. “I met Rodney Scott there for the first time. I fan-girled a bit. He’s a really cool dude. ”

Despite Phi’s own finesse in crafting the richly seasoned broth, he notes of Pho No. 1, the modest Vietnamese restaurant tucked in H&L’s front corner, “Sometimes I stop by for a quick bowl after an intense session at the gym. It’s probably the only other place I’ll get a bowl of pho in Charleston.”

Phi’s own ‘Grandma’s Chicken Pho’ is likely the other one, and comes up again with respect to his hypothetical $100 shopping spree. “Either I would raid the snack section and have a party, or I would buy $100 worth of yellow chickens and make some really good pho ga.”

A celebration either way, one can only hope for an invite. Same goes for the bacchanalia imagined by Wang, who gushes “OMG. I would buy tons of Indomie Hot & Spicy fried noodle packets; several packs of lumpia; a couple mochi; some Japanese curry packets; a couple of packs of Shaobing; Takis; frozen dumplings galore; Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp, but the kind with the peanuts in it; hot pot base … is that over budget?”

Either way, your future shopping list may now include some new entries. Sorry, chefs.

Burgeoning entrepreneurs take note, while H&L offers a staggering smorgasbord of fresh, frozen, canned, jarred, and otherwise alluring options, there’s really only a little bit of everything. As a result, it can be tough for some area restaurants to source from them all that they need, at the volumes or frequency they require. Interested in becoming a local distributor of fresh mung bean sprouts, dried bihon noodles, or pickled umeboshi plums? Opportunity is knocking.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.