Thanh Trang, the affable Asian store manager at Southeast Market at 422 E. 900 South, grew up in Utah but was living in Southern California when his parents purchased the market—formerly called Tay Do. While he’s always had a love of food, Trang, who studied economics and interior design, never really thought it would be his livelihood.
“My dad needed help. There were only two people running the store, so I came back to work for the summer but it just kind of stuck,” Trang says.
Trang took a break from the store one Sunday afternoon to meet me for brunch at The Annex. Between the two of us, we split the maple-brined ham and biscuits, pastrami hash, spaghetti with morel mushrooms, Bresaola with Tokyo turnips and pastrami-cured salmon. Because The Annex part of Epic Brewing, we had to wash all that food down with a couple of beers. We tried the Smoked and Oaked Belgian ale and the Berliner Weisse, which is sour beer available on tap at the brewpub.
BY: This was a great choice, Thanh.
TT: I love Epic beers, and I've heard a lot of good things about this place lately.
BY: Talk to me about your relationship with the food community and different chefs and restaurants around the city. I know many of them buy from you.
TT: Working at the store, I get to meet a lot of chefs. I like to see how they're using the ingredients they're buying from us. I love frequenting their restaurants and seeing what they're doing. The guys here at The Annex just got tubs of gochujang [a fermented red chili condiment from Korea]. I’ll have to come back for dinner and see what they do with it.
BY: That must be really fun for you. I know you're a food guy.
TT: It is. My girlfriend and I are really big on food, so it's really fun to see all these guys come through.
BY: What’s your latest food obsession?
TT: Bombay House. We've been eating a lot of Indian food lately, a lot of middle eastern food, too. We got takeout from Mazza four days straight. The lady who took our order knew who we were before I could even order. She was like, "You guys haven't tried these dishes yet." And I hadn't given her my name yet.
BY: Besides all that eating, what else do you do when you’re not at the store?
TT: My girlfriend and I are big foodies. We love to eat and travel. Last year, we went to Asia. We went to Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand.
BY: What was it like going to Asia as a Chinese-American? Were you able to blend in?
TT: You definitely stand out. They can tell. They know you don't belong there. They can tell by your dress and your mannerisms. I'd love to go back to Asia. I'd love to go to Tokyo.
BY: I have this theory that immigrants want to recreate a piece of what they had back in their home countries and that's why stores like yours are so important to the community.
TT: Yeah, especially for refugees. We see a lot of refugees from Burma and Nepal now. They sometimes can’t completely connect with this new world they're living in so they want something that they can identify with.
BY: My parents are immigrants, too, and for me as a kid, we ate a lot of Chinese food at home. Was it like that for you?
TT: Oh yeah. But I loved American food. I even looked forward to school lunch because it was something different from what I ate at home. I loved stuff that other kids hated like green peas.
BY: What are some of the unique requests you get at your store?
TT: I always get people who are fascinated by durian [a spiky Southeast Asian fruit] because they've heard about it. They just kind of pick up the fruit and play with it.
BY: What are some food trends that you've seen at the store over the years?
TT: Mochi ice cream. Coconut water. Kit Kats. First it was green-tea Kit Kats now it's just any Kit Kat flavor we get. I'm obsessed with finding shoyu and turkey with mash potatoes Kit Kats right now. Thai food was really big for while. Everyone was always in there getting ingredients to make curry. We get a lot of people coming in who want to make pho. A lot of ramen now, especially since David Chang did Mind of a Chef.
BY: You just kind of fell into your job. What keeps you there?
TT: The relationships. The community. It’s really one of my biggest joys working here, just making sure the customers have a good experience. It means a lot to me when a customer says, "Thank you. We haven't gotten that level of service before." I just try to make sure that I make contact with every customer that walks through the doors.
BY: I've seen how helpful you can be to all of your customers. Where did you learn that level of customer service?
TT: It's innate. I just want to make sure the customer has a good experience. That's what sets us apart from some of the other stores. For some, it's a new world. A lot of people have never been to an Asian store, so I just want to help people find what they're looking for.