You won’t find shark’s fin or Yangtze crocodile in an aisle or freezer of Thai Phat’s, the market at 100 North St. in Burlington. But you will find basic ingredients for most any popular Asian dish, plus a few things sure to stretch the culinary horizon.Consider the produce: long beans, Japanese yams, fresh bamboo, fuzzy squash, banana blossoms, and various greens wrapped in plastic and simply labeled “Asian vegetable” (no equivalent English name or hard to translate).
Now consider the firm and colorful fruit stacked in crates and bins: apples, mangoes, avocados and kiwis, of course, but also Thai coconuts and Korean pears.
Jammed with sauces, spices, sacks of rice and dry noodles, tofu of various forms, teas and sweets, Thai Phat draws a crowd on Wednesday, the day after owners Chau Nguyen (John) and his wife Huong Tran travel to Boston to replenish inventory.
“They leave Burlington on Tuesdays at midnight and arrive at the Chelsea Produce Market at 4:30 a.m., ready to buy,” explains their son, Loc Tran (Anthony), 34, who is at the check-out counter at this venerable shop, one of Vermont’s oldest Asian markets.
For years Thai Phat has been serving restaurants, home gourmets and the region’s growing immigrant populations.
Anthony, who was born in Vietnam, offers another list, this one of the countries from which many customers come: “Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Korea, China, Japan … and from Africa, and the U.S., too,” he says with a laugh.
Nearly half live in the Old North End neighborhood, with its older housing and more-affordable rents. Some arrive at the market with small food carts for the walk or bus ride home. Some drive from as far as Rutland, finding Thai Phat a convenient alternative to Asian markets in Boston, New York or Montreal.
Thai Phat opened roughly 15 years ago, explains Anthony. It was the brainchild of another Vietnamese immigrant, named Thai, who added the “Phat,” meaning to “go up.”
Five years ago Thai sold the business to Anthony’s father and moved to California, where, Anthony says, he has opened a nail salon.
Anthony, three siblings, and his mother and father arrived in America in the mid-‘90s as part of the wave of political refugees from Vietnam, many of whom, including his family, wound up for a while in Winooski.
They lived near a Catholic church as they do now, St. Joseph’s, on nearby Elmwood Avenue, a church that once a month offers Mass in Vietnamese, which they always manage to attend.
Anthony’s mother found a job at IBM and his dad at an automotive shop, where he worked on car engines and did body work and saved his money.
Five years ago, John bought Thai Phat, added more goods – and has earned rave reviews ever since for its variety of products and customer service. Two year ago, the store was named “top ethnic market” in Vermont by Burlington’s Seven Days weekly newspaper.
This has been a family enterprise from the start. Anthony and his own wife, who recently returned from a visit to Vietnam to see her parents, generally work the cash register, while John and Anthony’s mother handle other aspects of the business, but are available to guide customers.
“Can you help me find Sichuan peppercorns?”
“Follow me!” says John.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon Huong Tran is cleaning and packaging vegetables in a space behind the seafood spread out on crushed ice in display cases.
Fish? Thai Phat has all kinds, many whole with heads but cleaned, some fresh, some frozen, many shipped from points far east. Among them: mackerel, 7-inch long shrimp, striped bass, skate, Asian catfish, spiny goby, milk fish, eel, silver barb, spotted featherback, red tilapia and black tilapia.
“We sell out the tilapia every week thanks (largely) to an African family who I think are from Ghana,” says Anthony. “They love it and must eat it every day. … They buy it by the case.”
Of course, there’s also a selection of meats: frozen chicken feet, pork kidney and beef omassum, plus more traditional cuts.
The family puts in long hours, keeping the store open Monday through Saturday, 9 to 9, and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. But Anthony says when they’re especially busy, they’ll stay open until 10 at night.
Anthony’s two young daughters are at the store after school, doing homework on a berth near the counter, but go home with their grandmother around 6 p.m. The rest of the family arrives home late and dines together each night around 10:30.
Among those who appreciate the place are Vermont chefs. Across the street is Nunyan’s Bakery and Café, and serving luncheon sandwiches and soups is co-owner Kristine Harbour, who has nothing but good things to say about Thai Phat.
“Yes, we are neighbors! I love going over there because they have everything you need,” she says. “I like the idea they have exotic fruit, some things I have never heard of, things I can experiment with.”
Harbour says Thai Phat helps boost a neighborhood that’s always been a little rough on the edges.
Chef Steve Bogart of Worcester, former co-owner of A Single Pebble, the Chinese restaurant in Burlington, makes the hour-long drive from his home to Thai Phat maybe once a month to stock up.
“They have a great variety of Chinese goods — not everything that you can find in (a) Chinatown but pretty darn close – and if they don’t have it, you just ask and when they go to Boston they will get it.”
John, 58, now putting out produce, says he grew up in Bien Hoa about 40 miles from Ho-Chi Minh City (then Saigon) during the Vietnam War, and was a teenager during that difficult time, so he was not called to service.
“My parents had a small store in our home,” he explains. “I think this is in my blood.”
In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance reporter and editor.