Hub cap-sized plates lined with injera? Check. Heaping bowls of kimchi? Of course. Cylindrical roasters overflowing with Hatch green chiles? Naturally.
The city has become a bastion of foreign fares, as evidenced by the dozens of tortas-toting, pirogi-peddling establishments tucked within the city’s endless strip malls and shopping centers.
But navigating the city’s culinary roadmap can be intimidating. More than 154 square miles of land coupled with a ceaseless grid of concrete plazas makes uncovering the toothsome treasures an inherently demanding task.
However, for those seeking nearly any dish reminiscent of the Far East — be it Kai-Ka-Prow, seared spheres of rice or a storied Banh Mi — an enterprising local businessman has made the hunt simple: one strip, thousands of luscious possibilities.
Trong Lam opened the Pacific Ocean Marketplace at 12303 E. Mississippi Ave. last December and has since seen the surrounding, formerly abandoned shopping center turn into a venerable destination for a growing gamut of Asian cuisine.
“We want a large, diverse population to come here and try new things or things they can’t get anywhere else,” said Tracy Lam, Trong’s daughter and an employee at the Pacific Ocean in Aurora.
A trio of Asian eateries has opened in Trong’s 100,000-square-foot plaza over the past 10 months, establishing a one-block band where patrons can taste the flavors of Vietnam, Thailand, and most recently, Korea in a single afternoon.
“It’s been wonderful to have new, diverse businesses come in and give this area some more options for places to go out to eat,” said Marsha Berzins, city councilwoman for Ward III, which encompasses the marketplace. “And I know they are bringing in jobs to the community, so they really are a wonderful addition to this area.”
Chris Kim opened the doors of his first restaurant and the strip’s most-recent addition, Mr. Kim Korea B.B.Q., on Sept. 23. He said that following disputes and misunderstandings with other Aurora property owners, he felt comfortable working with Trong because he knew the difficulties associated with opening a restaurant specific to Korean barbecue.
“He (Trong) understood my side of the deal, and other people I was trying to work with really did not,” Kim said.
Kim joins Kim Ba Vietnamese Cuisine and Thai Mile High as the plaza’s Asian food hubs. The Lams said that they currently have two vacancies in the roughly 10-store strip and are planning to fill the empty spaces with a Chinese eatery and one Japanese restaurant. There were plans for another Chinese restaurant, San Dong, to open in the strip, but the lease agreement fell through.
“That would have been great for our strip, but they unfortunately didn’t want to open even though everything was pretty much set,” Tracy said.
The Mississippi location marks Trong’s third Pacific Ocean outpost in the metro region and his second new store in the past decade. He began his chain with a Denver location in 1989, and following financial success there, he opened a second market in Broomfield in 2005.
Trong poured more than $9 million into revamping the nearly 60,000-square-foot anchor market as well as the surrounding restaurant and retail shells and he worked closely with Aurora city planners on developing the project after city council approved a tax incentive deal to lure him to that location. Although it remains contingent on the market’s revenue, the deal could tally as much as $1.3 million in sales and tax use refunds over the next decade, according to city documents.
About 75 percent of the Aurora store’s products are catered specifically toward Asian customers, and the majority of the available items are Chinese and Vietnamese-specific, according to Tracy. That’s despite the fact that Koreans represent the highest national segment of the city’s Asian population at nearly 3,500 people, according to the American Community Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census. The ACS reported that Aurora’s second-highest Asian demographic hails from Vietnam, followed by the Philippines and China, sequentially.
Tracy said that because stores like H-Mart on the corner of South Parker Road and East Yale Avenue have already cornered much of the Korean-specific market, the plan for the Pacific Ocean in Aurora was never to focus on just one nationality’s cuisine. Instead, Pacific Ocean boasts a range of available ingredients from across southeast Asia as well as about 1,000 different Middle Eastern and Eastern European foods.
“It’s a lot different than H-Mart because they offer more Korean-based items, and we try to do just everything,” Tracy said.
Although the vitality of the Aurora plaza has yet to face any true market tests, simply having bodies moving in and out of the building is an upgrade for some surrounding business owners. The structure was formerly occupied by an Albertson’s grocery store and Rite Aid pharmacy and sat dormant for a number of years.
“There’s been a little bit more foot traffic,” said John Wan, owner of John’s Shoe Repair which has operated opposite the Pacific Ocean building for more than 20 years. “I’ll be interested to see after six months or a year how successful it will be, I don’t quite know yet.”
Sean Yang, an employee of B&B Beauty Supply and Wigs, said that there has not been a discernible uptick in business since Pacific Ocean first opened, but that the expanded dining options are a welcome addition to the shopping center.
“Employees like me can’t really leave the store during a shift, so it’s so nice to have more places nearby to quickly eat,” he said. “But business has been pretty much the same because most of our customers are black, and although a lot more Asian people are going there (Pacific Ocean Marketplace) … Asian people don’t make up much of our customer base.”