Big, new Asian grocery store reflects Milwaukee’s ever-shifting demographics

While driving to the new Asian supermarket on South 27th Street, I remembered how back in the 1980s, going out for Chinese food seemed like the coolest thing to do. Compared to the predictable fare at any of the fast food places I knew as a kid in the ’80s, getting Chinese food was a veritable dining adventure. Many of the ingredients weren’t like the ones my mother used in her home cooking. And the fortune cookies that we got at the end of the meal ensured that at some point I would insist on coming back for more.

Thirty-some years later, Asian cooking has become a big part of my home. My wife and I are devotees of the rice cooker, which is the subject of Roger Ebert’s new book, The Pot and How to Use It. So we got excited when word got out about the Pacific Produce Asian supermarket being planned for 5455 S. 27th St. (Long-time Wisconsinites will recognize the building’s semi-circular arch as the distinctive mark of a former Kohl’s grocery store. And did you know that the first Kohl’s grocery store was located here in Bay View?)

Sure enough, Pacific Produce opened up last Tuesday. Honestly, I don’t know if I have ever been excited about a supermarket. But walking through Pacific Produce today, I felt a thrill that the store was in place and open for business. (Yes, I get excited at the sight of fifty pound bags of jasmine rice.) My wife Stacie was even more exited at the prospect of finally having a place in Milwaukee that has the light and flavorful Vietnamese baguette sandwiches known as báhn mi.

Despite this, neither our four-month-old son Ellison nor my eight-year-old daughter Hari were interested in anything at the Báhn Mi Nhuy carryout stand. Ellison was busy napping in his stroller, while Hari had a ball marveling at the variety of frozen items that were available. She laughed at the whole grouper fish and daring me to touch the eyes of frozen duck heads. Some of the items weren’t so easy for her to deal with. While she objected to the presence of pig uteruses for sale, it was balut—boiled, fertilized duck eggs—really set her off once she figured out that balut entailed the effective killing of duck fetuses.

“They’re mean, doing that,” she said. “How can they do that? Poor duckies.”

Stacie replied, “Nothing goes to waste,” to which Hari objected, “But they’re mean!”

While our discussion pointed out how much we’ve been removed from the realities of carnivorism by modern life, to me, it subtly underlined how the population in Milwaukee and the greater metro area is evolving.

A few years back, my history methodology class at UWM was puzzling over the significance of an article in that day’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that discussed the creation of a new Asian-themed festival in Milwaukee’s Silver City neighborhood. Our professor asked, why was this news? Why was it important enough to write about and put in the paper? And how was it representative of a long-term trend for Milwaukee?

I picked up on it right away: while the south side had been predominantly Polish for much of the 19th and 20th century, it was changing fast. Fast enough that they could have a festival. I had recently seen census numbers that showed Milwaukee’s Asian population had really grown in the past twenty years, and here was proof of that in the plans for the new festival.

(In the interest of delicious but probably unnecessary disclosure, I am friends with Bouavanh Toy (“Toy”) Sihamath, who, along with her sister Bouachanh (“Bee”) Phonhab Phonthavisouk, owns Asian International Market at 3401 W. National Ave. I pick up their discarded vegetables for the Milwaukee Community Compost Network.)

I find it curious that although the decades-long saga of the Vietnam War ended a few months before I was born, some thirty-five years later, businesses owned by Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and Hmong people (among the many other Asian ethnicities) have thrived here in Milwaukee. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still going on, by the time my children are adults, will we see the wars long-since ended and a similar growth of Mid-Eastern and central Asian food and community in Milwaukee?

Short answer: “Come back when you’re seventy and find out.”

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.

2 thoughts on “Big, new Asian grocery store reflects Milwaukee’s ever-shifting demographics”

  1. My sister in Brooklyn. NY has often said that if you see a story in the paper about trouble in some part of the world, six months later people from there will be opening a store in her neighborhood.

  2. As an Asian, I am actually very happy to see two stores that opened in 2010 which provided a greater extent of convenience to buy Asian products in Milwaukee. One is Mei Hua on Oklahoma Ave. and another one is Pacific Produce. Now I don’t have to drive to Chicago and I can get 60% of what I wanna get in Chicago Chinatown. Wonderful.

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