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Weekend Planner

An expanding Asian empire

Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai influence is growing in Philadelphia

Email|Print| Text size + By Suzanne Sataline
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2003

I miss Philadelphia.

That is a startling confession because, first, I am not a native and, second, I spent most of my time there grumbling about the city's decay and contemplating selling my cats for the chance to flee to north of Trenton.

I lived in Philadelphia in the '90s, just after the reign of Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, when every street corner seemed scraped raw from the double affliction of crack battles and middle-class flight. Outside of Detroit, I had never seen so many fallow schools and office buildings. Most of the populace, if it hadn't yet done so, hoped to add to those vacancies by fleeing for the stone houses on the Main Line. Even college students didn't hang out much after 8 at night.

Except in Chinatown. When all the souls had retreated for the night from the business center or Broad Street, where theater marquees illuminated vacant banks and restaurants, the Center City Chinese enclave blinked and sang like a jukebox. It all happened in a 10-block area that had been compressed -- as is the case with other Chinatowns -- through decades of highway projects, urban renewal, and eminent domain. Throughout all this, the neighborhood remained a destination, dominated by the 40-foot-high imperial Friendship Gate arching over 10th Street, near Arch.

There was more light and sound here than in the 5 square miles surrounding Chinatown. Schoolchildren ran home from tutoring or music lessons, chattering to one another. Teenagers cruised the noodle shops and music stores where speakers throbbed with warbling voices from abroad. Workers in storefront shops ladled batter into small clattering machines that folded fortune cookies. Alleys belched steam from noodles and cigarette smoke from workers on breaks. Pub crawlers converged on the place at 3 a.m. for seared duck.

And the food? Besides fresh frogs and fish, Chinatown came to welcome cuisines from sister nations. Pungent Malaysian sautes. Blistering Thai stir fry. Luscious Burmese curries. And comforting bowls of Vietnamese pho with their basil and coriander perfumes. In recent years all the East has combined under certain roofs in fusion restaurants. Home for me was always the Vietnam Restaurant, with its cold vermicelli noodles topped with light and crispy spring rolls, and the spicy shrimp and squid quick-fried, then coated in sea salt.

Most outsiders passed through in search of spring rolls or tins of jasmine tea. For the rest of us, the neighborhood was our yogi, a place of life-affirming power where our souls were reminded of how a healthy city should pulse.

Recently, the city's Asian empire has spread. Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee families who had settled in South Philadelphia in the 1970s and '80s opened trinket shops and vegetable stands in the once-homogeneous Italian market area. Those pioneers attracted friends and investors who took chances on the less forgiving quarters of the city's southern frontier. Walk below the market, heading east on Washington Street. The area was once a draw for Italian and Irish immigrants, but in recent decades languished as a burned-out thoroughfare of factory shells, abandoned gas stations, and lot after lot of knee-high weeds tangled with trash.

It was here that Asian entrepreneurs saw opportunity, and so New World Plaza was born. The bright yellow glow of signs in Chinese and Vietnamese beckon day and night from the street's 600 block. Stores sell jewelry, imported gifts, videos, music, and Vietnamese sandwiches, breads, and puddings. The parking lot is always packed.

The plaza contains Sunrise, a banquet hall that hums on Saturday nights with brides and grooms dancing amid their wedding parties. Heading west on Washington you find Pho 75, a large, bright noodle shop between 12th and 13th. And then you come to another huge strip called Hoa Binh Plaza, lights ablaze in the night sky. Suburban-size grocery stores nearby stock live fish, fresh meat, clusters of basil, and cooking equipment.

The reason for all this is simple. "The Italian market is shrinking -- you can see it. And Chinatown can't grow," said Harry Tran, owner of Le Be Bakery in the New World Plaza. Tran and his sister left their parents and fled Vietnam in 1975. In recent years he has watched merchants arrive from New York and California, where costs are steeper. "It's very hard to get ahead" in those places, Tran said. The new businesses are employing Salvadorans and Mexicans. Families are starting to settle in the former wasteland, pumping up housing prices. "It's like iced coffee," the boyish-faced Tran said. "All different tastes and cultures."

At this point the dominating force is the Far East and Southeast Asia. At New World Plaza, head to Pho Ha in the left rear corner and sit at one of the long tables adorned with stainless steel holders for chopsticks, plastic spoons, and chili sauces. Yes, the restaurant is part of a national dynasty bringing beef soup to the masses. But the South Philly shop elevates the taste to four-star heights. The clear, sizzling broth is redolent with cinnamon and ginger and is placed before you nearly bubbling. Slices of raw pink steak cook in the broth. All around, teenagers and families with babies chat as they heap their bowls with basil and bean sprouts and plenty of hot sauce. At $4.45 a bowl, it is the cheapest ticket possible to Ho Chi Minh City.

Even more fun is walking the aisles of the many brightly lighted Stop & Shop-style supermarkets anchored along the strip. Wing Phat supermarket at 12th Street and Washington Avenue, six blocks west of the plaza, caters to Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian customers from the area and neighboring states. It is stuffed with delicacies and culinary wonders: gingseng juice, royal ferns, frozen dumplings, barrels of seawood swimming in brine. And, of course, bags of rice in mountainous piles.

Why would someone travel several hours to visit what are essentially strip malls? Because to venture there is to glimpse new Asia -- the borrowed and tweaked modern American culture that is transforming Hanoi and Bangkok. Go to meet and congratulate the people who are fixing our broken American cities.

Possibly the best time to visit Asian Philadelphia -- or worst, depending on your love for crowds -- is during one of the Chinese festivals. Lunar New Year, usually in mid-to-late January or February, and the Autumn Moon Festival in August are riots of colors and noise as people from the neighborhood and suburbs converge to shout in the new year. The Dragon Boat Festival in May draws international competitors racing traditional hulls adorned with carved creature heads.

This month I collected oxtail bones and haunted tiny grocers in Dorchester in search of star anise and anchovy-based fish sauce. My pho tasted nothing like South Philly or North 11th Street -- I went a little heavy on the cinnamon and cloves -- but it will suffice until I can return.

Suzanne Sataline can be reached at sataline@globe.com.

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