Adding Asian flavors to the West Side Market, One tasty morsel at a Time

 

Change comes slowly to the West Side Market-one of the largest and oldest public markets in America– but at a pace Jungsoon An can abide. She’s one of only a handful of Asian vendors at the bustling arcade, so you might expect her to offer foods from her homeland, South Korea. She does–but precious few.

Instead of Korean staples like kalbi (short ribs) and brisket, the butcher case at Walker’s Meats brims with Eastern European-style hams, sausages, wieners and cold cuts. That’s what the Walker family and a later vendor sold for years before An arrived in 2006. For the most part, she’s carried on the tradition-right down to working beneath the Walker name.

“It’s what my customers expect,” Ahn says, adding, “Business is good.”

Why change a winning formula-when you can tweak it?

On a recent afternoon, a sizzling pan of shaved beef cooled atop her stainless-steel counter, sending off a sweet aroma. A young man speared a sample with a toothpick, murmured “Mm mm,” and asked his companion to try it.

“Can you tell us how to make this?” she asked.

Yes she can.

An has been introducing Korean Bool Kogi, literally “fire meat,” marinated slices of grilled beef and pork that are a Korean classic. This fall, she added kimchi, a spicy cabbage dish essential at Korean meals.

She’s also tinkering with American staples. The trimmings from her Christmas Ale bacon are combined into a savory spread she calls Bacon Jam, a hot seller.

“My customers like bacon in everything,” An explained.

To succeed at the market, An, who is known to her cusomers as “Jay,” faced a special challenge. Most of her colleagues grew up eating the products they sell. But there’s nothing like lunch meat in Korea. She had to learn about Slovenian klobasa, Polish keilbosi, Chicago hot dogs, turkey tails and beef bacon.

“Slowly, slowly,” I learned,” said An, a soft-spoken woman with a kind smile. “Ham hocks? I asked my customers, ‘What do you eat with that?’
They make a soup! My customers teach me a lot.”

For An, as for many immigrants, the market has been a gateway to the American dream.

She emigrated from Seoul in 2003 with her husband, Doosik, and their 12-year-old daughter, sponsored by a sister in Maryland. Her husband found work in the construction industry in Cleveland. An took training to become a dental hygienist but could only find part-time work in a fitness center. She looked for a job that would offer a better income and allow her to be a devoted mom, too.

The market, then open four days a week, seemed to offer flexibility. She scouted the maze-like aisles for three years, looking for a stand, before a friend in the vendor ranks alerted her that Walker’s Meats coming available.

The menu was a mystery but the price was manageable. An bought the stand and became a purveyor of Cleveland-style meats and sausages.

Other vendors helped her to learn the trade. Many have become friends. For advisors, she turns to her customers, who are growing more diverse and adventuresome.

“Now I have Asian customers, too,” Ahn said, flashing a smile. “The Chinese watch the Korean (TV) dramas. They come up and the say, ‘Bool Kogi!'”

So will she be changing the name-maybe to An’s, or Jungsoon’s Meats?

No time soon.

“Now, everybody knows me,” she said. “I’m the Korean. I have Asian food. The name, it doesn’t matter.”

Our Immigrant Business series: Immigrants punch above their weight as entrepreneurs and job creators. They are nearly twice as likely as native-born Americans to launch a business. While we cheer their hustle and success, we also want to learn from it. So we are running a series of stories examining immigrant businesses and the founders who launched them. If there is a business you would suggest for this series, please email Courtney@globalcleveland.org