Dining With Denise Neil

You haven’t really done Wichita until you’ve been to this exotic north-side business

When I’m entertaining visitors from out of town and I want to show off Wichita, I take them to all the usual places: The Keeper of the Plains. Nifty Nut House. The Sedgwick County Zoo if the weather’s nice.

But there’s another can’t-miss stop on my tour, and when I tell my guests where we’re headed, they’re confused.

An Asian grocery store? Really?

Oh, yes. Really.

If you’ve never been in the Thai Binh Supermarket at 1530 W. 21st Street in Wichita, you are missing out on one of Wichita’s most fascinating, overwhelming and unusual experiences. If you’re itching for a trip to Asia but can’t afford it, a trip to Thai Binh is a completely free substitute.

Even if you’re not a cook — even if you don’t particularly like Asian food — you could spend hours perusing the aisles in this 30,000-square-foot wonderland, which will confront all of your senses — especially your sense of sight and smell. The store — whose atmosphere always has a distinct fishy aroma — is bursting at the seams with aisle after aisle of foods you’ve never seen in Wichita — foods you never even knew existed. (Canned puffball mushrooms, anyone?)

And it’s not just food. It’s Chinese dresses. Six-feet tall decorative plastic plants. Dolphin fountains. Chopsticks. Sake sets. Rice cookers. Waving Japanese kittens. Tiny robotic lions ready to dance their way through your Lunar New Year’s party.

Local entrepreneur Jimmy Nguyen opened Wichita’s first Thai Binh at the corner of 21st and Broadway in 1985. He moved it once, then one more time in 1996 to the 30,000 square-foot space on 21st Street between Amidon and Broadway.

Nguyen, who is trying to slow down, sold Thai Binh to his sister and now runs a smaller but nearly identical market called Thai An at Pawnee and Hillside. (The names of both stores translate to “Peace,” Nguyen said.)

Thai Binh, though, is the biggest Asian market in Wichita, and it’s always bustling with customers. Many of them are Asian families looking for ingredients to make traditional meals. Many of them are restaurant owners, rushing to the counter with boxes of supplies. And many are regular Wichitans who are looking for entertainment, for Asian ingredients or just for a chance to snatch unusual things off the shelves and give them a try.

On a recent day, Andrea Cavgalar was in the store’s jam-packed candy aisle looking for her favorite coconut ginger candies.

She’s been shopping at Thai Binh for years, ever since a friend recommended she check it out. It’s where she gets fresh basil and mint year round for a much lower price than in the mainstream grocery stores.

On this day, another adventure seeker in the candy aisle is urging her to buy a bag of the green tea Kit Kats.

In return, Cavgalar recommends that her fellow shopper try the egg yolk cookies she’d stumbled across.

“Every time I come in, I try to find something I’ve never tried before and try it,” Cavgalar sad.

A culinary fun house

Describing all the items in Thai Binh would take longer than any of us have. Nguyen imports some of the items from Asia. Others he picks up in Houston. He also has things shipped in from both the east coast and the west coast.

His biggest seller is rice, and store carries 25 different types, some in 25-pound bags. It also has aisle as long as a basketball court stocked with dozens of variates of Asian noodles, from Pad Thai to glass to rice stick.

It has a meat department that offers whole mackerel fish, only their eyeballs visible from the ice that keeps them fresh. Nearby is a box of crabs (sometimes they’re sold live and scurrying) next to a display of fresh clams and fresh oysters in their shells.

The produce section is full of strange shapes, textures and smells. A scaly green jack fruit. A Vietnamese watermelon that looks like a pumpkin with dark-green skin. Pink Dragon fruit with their green tendrils curling all about. Clusters of golf-ball sized, brown longan fruit, still on the branches.

Want to make your own spring rolls? Thai Binh has everything you need: Egg roll paper. Bean sprouts. Shrimp. Pork. Herbs. Even the dishes to serve them on.

Like Cafe Sua? Thai Binh not only carries the Cafe Du Monde chicory coffee you need to make the sweet iced drink, it also has the metal filter sets used to brew the coffee, just like you see in local Vietnamese restaurants.

Need some Sriracha? The store has six varieties, and it also has plum sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, Hoison sauce, chili garlic sauce and a whole lot of soy sauce. And soy paste.

Every now and then, you’ll bump into a case of prepared foods ready to eat. Hot pork-filled steam buns. Sesame balls. Fried bananas. Up front is an end cap filled with fresh banh mi sandwiches and Asian soups ready to heat and eat.

Food is hardly the only thing Thai Binh sells, though. On the east end of the store are two separate rooms. One is stuffed with traditional Asian clothing, including elaborate silk dresses displayed on the walls and a huge rack of basic, wide-legged elastic pants with coordinating tops. The other is full of elaborately carved furniture, rows and rows of colorful statues and figurines — even a rack of cloth posters featuring Chinese heroes like Jet Li.

You can find everything you need to throw a fancy Asian dinner party — or even open your own restaurant. One aisle is filled with kitchen gadgets and dishes, ranging from dainty tea sets to packages of decorative chopsticks. There are colanders big enough to drain a year’s worth of noodles at once. There’s a wok big enough to cook up dinner for 40.

There are live bamboo plants. Rows and rows of old Asian videos and books. Backyard grills. Watches. Toys. You can get a plant holder made out of seashells. You can get green tea flavored (and colored) Kit Kats. You get a four-foot-tall decorative lobster to hang on your wall.

And you can marvel at some of the delicacies that most western palates aren’t quite ready to tackle. The meat department has packaged and ready to go every organ of a pig, from its heart to its spleen to its uterus. You can even buy a whole pig head, its snout clearly visible through the plastic bag.

A refrigerator case up front is filled with fresh durian, a scaly piece of produce known as the world’s stinkiest fruit. Its aroma is often compared to gym socks on its best day, a rotten corpse on its worst, and it’s banned in public spaces in countries where it’s more common.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, said he was living in Texas in the mid-1980s when a friend, who worked as a food supplier, insistently tried to persuade him for months to move to Wichita and open an Asian market.

Nguyen resisted and said “no” over and over again. Wichita was too cold, he said, and not exciting enough.

Now, more than 30 years later, he’s proud of the business he and his family have built — and he’s happy to be able to fill a need in the community.

“Whatever you need for Asian food, just come over here,” he said. “One stop and you can get them all.”