In 2013 I was invited to a party. I needed something to bring some food contribution, and with little other choice (what else would I bring to a party? Casserole?) I decided to explore further afield in Los Angeles for better sources of durian.
This episode is brought to you now because Hawaii Supermarket now carries Musang King durian from Malaysia and, (And!) is having a sale on fresh, not frozen, durian from Thailand. If you’re in the L.A. area, go get yourself some goodness.
About San Gabriel
San Gabriel is, admittedly, rather far away from my Grandma’s house. Which is exactly what I wanted. When I was there, my Grandpa was pretty ill and I didn’t find much opportunity to get out of the house. This drives me nuts. I was in desperate need of an adventure. Hence San Gabriel.
San Gabriel is technically an independent city with about 40,000 people, but in the urban sprawl that is LA it’s hard to know where San Gabriel begins and ends. The city is attempting to market itself as a tourist attraction, but the only tourists who seem to believe them are Chinese tourists who don’t want to experiment with American food.
The area is like a Little Multi-Cultural Asia. As I drove closer to Hawaii Supermarket, the signs began to be in Chinese script. Within one block, I spotted a 99 Ranch, a 168 Supermarket, and Valley Supermarket, all enormous Asian chains.
But because I was short on time, I went with the one that’s name was most nonsensical: Hawaii Supermarket.
What does Hawaii have to do with Asian Food?
This was the first question I asked Chris, the nice staff member who answered my questions on the supermarket’s Facebook Page. He lol’d and said a lot of people ask that question, and there’s no specific answer.
If there is a good reason, it’s in the pretty amazing story behind Hawaii Supermarket. Here’s Chris:
“The story of the Yang family originated in Cambodia where the two owners, who are brothers, were born. In the late 1970’s, war and genocide had plagued the country and the family was forced to escape as refugees or stay and risk almost certain death. Most of the family were fortunate enough to flee to Vietnam and were finally given amnesty in France where they would stay for the next decade.
In Paris’ 13th quarter — Chinatown — the two brothers would start several successful restaurant businesses, one of which was called…you guessed it: Hawaii Restaurant.
After 10 successful years in the restaurant business in Paris, the family decided they wanted to pursue the American dream and relocate to the sunny shores of California, settling in LA in 1989. Hoping to bring their restaurant experience and savvy with them to the States, the Yangs reopened Hawaii Restaurant in Monterey Park.
However, after realizing the restaurant business in the States was not as lucrative as in Paris, they decided in 1991 to pursue a different venture and opened Hawaii Supermarket in San Gabriel. Twenty four years and two expansions later, the store has become a landmark for immigrants in the community new and old alike.”
And the name Hawaii?
Here’s Chris again:
People ask all the time and the owners have never really given a definite answer. They have mentioned that Hawaii is a symbol of paradise and their goals or realizing their American dreams are manifested in the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Other accounts of the story paint Hawaii as the geological and cultural bridge between the East and West — serving as the midway point between the two continents. While the Supermarket is a microcosm of that bridge in the local community of San Gabriel Valley.
It could also be that they just named it that because they thought the name was catchy. Depends on who you ask I guess 😉
The emoticon is his.
|Photo courtesy of Chris: Fresh Durian at Hawaii Supermarket
When to Find Fresh Durian
The day that I visited, I didn’t find any fresh durian. I wasn’t surprised — it was January.
I approached a young man sorting produce to ask when I could find fresh durian. “Don’t have,” he grunted, his eyes sliding from my face to the floor as he suddenly needed to march away. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t speak English or just didn’t want to. It was a great cultural moment.
So again I asked Chris, the friendly Facebook staff. Here’s what he says on the topic of fresh durian:
I was told by our store manager that we do try to carry fresh durian year round but due to supply issues (especially during the winter months) we are unable to always have it in stock. During the summer peak season, however there is usually more than ample supply and we are able to offer it on a more consistent basis. The price will vary based on the market conditions and availability throughout the year but it usually ranges between $7-13 per pound.
It turns out that they have Fresh Durian right now, and he sent me a picture. The durian looks pretty good — not too yellow, no cracking or mold spots. But I wonder (and this is my advice to you), if the durian looks a tad unripe. If you buy it, you might want to wait a few days to let it soften up.
As of right now (September, 2015), the Fresh Durian is $7.99/lb from P.O.K. Brand. Their website seems to be down, but they do have a Facebook.
|Musang King photo courtesy of Chris
Musang King From Malaysia
Now this makes me really excited. I knew that Malaysian durian entered grocery stores on the East coast two years ago, but I hadn’t yet seen it for sale in Los Angeles. And here they are.
They’re even whole durians, not the vacuum-sealed box kind.
My opinion is that Musang King withstands the cell-poppage of being frozen much better than Monthong, which tends to get a bizarre, water-meet-rubber texture. Since Musang King is already a dry, dense durian, being frozen and then thawed doesn’t make it as watery.
Having Musang King available could revolutionize how Americans experience their first durian. For example, what if Buzzfeed had given people Musang King to try, instead of Monthong? I think it would have been a different kind of video.
Right now (September 2015) they cost $7.49/lb, about twice the price of a fresh one in Malaysia. And if you can’t stand the price, consider taking a Durian Trip to Malaysia.
The Saturday afternoon I visited Hawaii Supermarket was a madhouse. Parking took all the chess-like skills I learned from the game Traffic Jam as a child. It was packed, inside and outside the store.
Once inside, I realized that I was probably the only Caucasian person there. I squeezed around tiny Asian grannies pushing shopping carts piled high with dried fish parts. The store was huge and chaotic, with so many products that if I hadn’t been focused on just one item I would have gotten lost.
The durians I found right away in an open freezer section near the produce. As I examined them I felt eyebrows being raised in my direction.
The frozen durian was on sale for only $1.79/lb, so I bought three for the party. I didn’t see any fresh durian — but again, this was January.
I almost made it out with just my durians, but the produce section called me to explore further. I looked at my watch — I had a minute.
I ended up with this. Not too shabby for an afternoon’s adventure.
|My check-out from Hawaii Supermarket
Here’s the price wrap-up as of September, 2015:
- Frozen Monthong From Thailand: US $2.59/lb or $5.70/kg
- Fresh, Not Frozen, Monthong From Thailand: 7.99/lb or $17.61/kg (that’s 637 Thai baht)
- Frozen Musang King From Malaysia: $7.49/lb or $16.51/kg (that’s 72 Malaysian RM)
* I have not and will not receive any payment in the form of cash or durian from Hawaii Supermarket.
How To Go To Hawaii Supermarket
Hawaii Supermarket is located off the I-10 Santa Monica Freeway in East Los Angeles.
Address: 120 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA
Telephone: +(626) 307-0062
The best way to contact them appears to be Facebook.