Nestled within the historic Uptown neighborhood of Chicago is Little Vietnam—sometimes called Little Saigon, or new Chinatown—a bustling center of Southeast Asian culture. Want authentic Vietnamese pho, banh mi, or other staples of the region? You’ll find them there one storefront after another, right in the heart of the neighborhood where Al Capone once listened to jazz and drank bootleg liquor.Chicagoans are lucky to live in a city with a cornucopia of cuisines when it comes to dining out, but what if you prefer to cook? If you want to broaden your Southeast Asian culinary skills in the kitchen, you actually have easy access to all of the ingredients and tools you would think could only be found in obscure corner stores or deep in the heart of Amazon’s housewares section. There are a number of local markets in neighborhoods like this that will meet your every need, such as the Korean chain Super H Mart in the suburb of Niles, Joong Boo Market in the Avondale neighborhood, and Richwell Market just outside of Chinatown in Pilsen. What you may not know is that many of them can supply your non-edible needs: The tools of the trade that help you cook an authentic feast meal after meal.
One such treasure, found right in the heart of Little Vietnam on Broadway and Argyle Streets, is Tai Nam Market. Built on the site of a former car dealership, and often looking like one with it’s perpetually packed parking lot, Thai Nam is the anchor store to a mini-mall of other businesses such as a Vietnamese restaurant, and a combo immigration, travel, and translation company. Founded in 1993 by Vietnamese-Chinese immigrants, Tai Nam is one of the largest Asian markets in Chicago but is still family owned.
“[We were] boat people, coming over in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s” says Phieu Tran, a co-owner of Tai Nam Market. “We’re family-owned and do things ourselves, so we know our customers more than other stores.”
Thai Nam is principally considered a Vietnamese-Chinese market because of the heavy concentration of products from those two countries and the background of the founding partners. However, Tai Nam also sources foods and products from Thailand, Japan, Korea, and other East Asian countries. They serve the surrounding neighborhood restaurants and local consumers alike, focusing on personalized business.
Mr. Tran credits a lot of Tai Nam’s success to this customer centricity in order to continually serve their community. He explained that they get a steady stream of regular restaurant and family customers during the week, but their clientele expands greatly on the weekends. “We have people travel a while from within the state, and from out of state too,” he explains. They regularly see customers who make weekend trips from neighboring states such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and even from as far away as Minnesota and Ohio. Simply put, Tai Nam offers a greater selection than what those customers can get at home.
“We know our customers pretty well,” he continues, describing what helps the store continually grow and thrive. “We interact with them. We’re still like a mom-and-pop store, so we do everything ourselves. We know the products very well.” The owners are also prolific home cooks, so they’re often out on the floor giving customers advice.While you would expect Tai Nam to have a sizeable selection of foodstuffs—and they do, offering everything from fruits and vegetables to imported and prepared foods to meat and seafood—it could be easy to overlook their extensive housewares section. Believe it or not, selling Vietnamese and other Asian cooking supplies wasn’t originally in the business plan: It began because a vendor came to them and offered a new product. However, Tran acknowledges that setting up the cookware and housewares section was a smart business move as there weren’t really stores in the area that focused on such a specific niche. “By focusing on only one thing, they probably couldn’t survive,” he opined. Though a large portion of Tai Nam’s cookware sales come from restaurants, a home cook can easily find exactly what they need as well. “Believe me, whatever we sell to restaurants we sell to consumers,” Tran insists.
So, sure, you need chopsticks? Rolling mats? Giant woks big enough to bathe in? At Tai Nam you can find them all within a few steps of each other. But to really perfect your dishes, think bigger for the items you may want but not necessarily believe would be readily available. One of the most unique options for sale, for example, is a Vietnamese coffee maker. Vietnamese coffee is extremely strong and thick, like espresso, but the equipment needed to brew it is a fraction of the size of an espresso machine. It looks like a mini pot with holes that sits on top of a tea cup. You can pick up a handful of them at reasonable prices, as Tai Nam’s cookware selection is inexpensive but extremely high quality. In fact, if you want a traditional heavy clay Vietnamese stove like the one Tran used growing up, you could pick up a few here for around $30 a piece. Like small (but super heavy) grills, coals or burning wood are placed in an opening below the stove and the food is set on the top portion, where the heat comes up through strategically placed holes.
If grilling isn’t your thing but you still want an authentic yet unique tool, you could instead pick up a traditional coconut grater to make homemade coconut milk. It’s a small bench with a horizontal circular blade on the end, designed to hand-shred a coconut to extract the milk.
However, if you’re someone who prefers a simple spring roll, Tai Nam sells rice paper water bowls, the perfect gadget that can be filed under the “I rarely use it, but when I do, I’m so glad I have it” category. An incredibly economic space saver, Tran explained that it’s now used by both home cooks and restaurant kitchens all over. Traditionally, making spring rolls takes a lot of prep work: Grab individual sheets of rice paper, dip them in water to make them pliable, then stack them on a giant plate until they’re ready to be filled. The problem is that the delicate rice papers, once wet, will stick to each other and the plate, creating a mess and a logistical nightmare. You could separate them onto individual plates, but that takes up a ton of counter space. Luckily the water bowls solve that problem. A plastic half moon-shaped tool, it has one slot for the solid sheets of rice paper and a second one to dip them individually in water, keeping them separated, intact, and using only a fraction of the space. “It’s a simply idea,” notes Tran wryly. “I can’t believe it took them 5,000 years to figure it out.”
Add that to the bins of chef’s knives, bowls, rice cookers, and even a row dedicated to Chinese New Year decorations, and Tai Nam is your one-stop-shop for literally everything you could need to make an authentic Southeast Asian meal at home. In fact, Mr. Tran encourages you to give it a try. While the neighborhood is filled with amazing ethnic restaurants, he points out plainly, “You want a good meal? You do it at home.” And indeed, Tai Nam Market makes bringing Asian cuisine, and all the related tools, into your home a bit easier.