“Love Bao has been able to allow people to try and eat classic Taiwanese dishes in a town that still doesn’t have as many Asian options as other big cities,” says Joe Luo, the owner of Love Bao Taiwanese Kitchen, a food vendor tucked inside Cary’s H Mart. “It also allows people from Taiwan to have a taste of home when they’re far, far away.”

H Mart, like a handful of other international grocery stores scattered across the Triangle—including Li Ming’s Global Market and Compare Foods in Durham and Almadina Market, K-Town Market, and El Toro in Raleigh—serve as vital resources for immigrant communities, providing hard-to-source ingredients, access to favorite snacks, and produce that doesn’t grow in North Carolina.

Among this rich scene, the unsung heroes of international grocery stores are the food purveyors, like Luo, who operate businesses inside these stores. 

You’re not likely to stumble across these vendors on Yelp, local food blogs, or “Best of” lists. While some do business with their own unique branding, others don’t have names independent of the larger store in which they operate. Many vendors are owned and operated by the grocery store itself, while others rent out the space and operate independently.

These tucked-away outposts are perfect for grabbing a quick bite after a long shopping trip—but beyond their convenience, they’ve also become culinary destinations in their own right, with mouthwatering plates of affordable dishes from around the world.

Filipino Express at Oriental Store of Raleigh | 3601 Capital Boulevard, Raleigh

Tucked inside Filipino grocery the Oriental Store of Raleigh, the Filipino Express offers savory staples like lumpia and adobo, as well as sweets like cassava cake and halo-halo.

Owner Mack Libago explains that when his wife’s aunt Maria Victoria Ng Chua opened the store in 1970, it was the first international grocery store of any kind in the region. At the time, Oriental Store carried a range of international products, catering to many immigrant populations. But as different communities grew and more international stores opened, Oriental Store shifted to specializing in Filipino items.

In those early days, staff at Oriental Store would often request that Chua cook lunch for them during their shifts.

“One day the health inspector came in and my aunt was given a ticket because we were serving food without a license,” Libago says, “so then she decided, why not make it a business?” 

15 years later, the business is still humming. Libago explains that Filipino food is not easy to make, and preparing it properly requires a plethora of herbs and spices. The restaurant, where an array of perfectly balanced stews are served, is particularly appreciated by the Filipino locals for whom it is difficult to find enough time to cook the complex dishes themselves.

Filipino Express is one of just a few restaurants that found a silver lining in pandemic restrictions. Because the establishment is situated in a grocery store, it was able to remain open and accessible to patrons venturing out for groceries. The customer base grew.

Libago, conscious of the need to continually expand his customer base and tactical about growing the business, always wants to welcome new diners from all backgrounds.

“In my mind, to grow the business, you have to appeal to the Americans, you have to make sure that they love it. Because they are the most populous group,” Libago says. “If you are only considering the Filipinos, it’s limited. Right now I can see the growth of American customers.”

Americans tend to be less “adventurous” when they dine at Filipino Express, Libago says, typically ordering dishes like lumpia, fried Filipino spring rolls; pancit, a stir-fried noodle; and chicken adobo, a stew that includes a variety of spices, vinegar, and soy sauce—dishes that share elements of cuisines with which American customers are more familiar. While these are the dishes that are most common in the United States, Libago encourages all diners to branch out and taste other dishes.

“Filipinos like the dinuguan more,” Libago says of a dark, garlicky pork stew. “We have this dish that is flavored with pork blood, so it’s a very unique taste, but it’s very good.”

Love Bao Taiwanese Kitchen at H Mart | 1961 High House Road, Cary

H Mart in Cary is by far the most robust of local international supermarkets in terms of both square footage and the number of independent food vendors who operate there.

The Korean supermarket chain was founded in 1982 in Queens, New York, and today has nearly 100 locations across the United States. (The supermarket chain is also the subject of musician Michelle Zauner’s 2021 memoir, Crying in H Mart.)

Since the Cary location’s opening in 2016, the store has been home to a slew of vendors. The prepared-food outlets in H Mart represent a variety of Asian cuisines, serving traditional fare and street foods from across the continent.

One of those outposts is Luo’s Love Bao Taiwanese Kitchen. In 2015, after living in the United States for 30 years, Luo had moved back to his hometown of Keelung, Taiwan, to train alongside and learn recipes from his father-in-law. There, he opened his own restaurant in the Keelung Night Market.

The restaurant was a success over the course of his 18 months in business, so he moved his venture back to the United States. In 2019, he opened Love Bao Taiwanese Kitchen.

The Love Bao menu features extensive variations of its namesake dish, gua bao, a steamed bun that the menu describes as “the Taiwanese burger.”

The original gua bao is filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, powdered peanuts, brown sugar, and cilantro, creating a  rich balance of acidic, nutty, sweet, and bright flavors. The menu also features fusion bao recipes, among them the chicken filet gua bao filled with fried chicken, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, honey mustard, and ketchup.

The business agreement with H Mart requires that vendors pay rent based on sales—in essence, a commission.

“We have a working contract with H Mart where we are not responsible for paying many of the expenses of a stand-alone restaurant,” Luo says, explaining the benefit of the arrangement.

Other grocery stores with food vendors in the Triangle

Grand Asia Market, 1253 Buck Jones Road, Raleigh | Boasts a Chinese restaurant and bakery inside

Super Compare, 2000 Avondale Drive A, Durham | Offers prepared Caribbean food

Choi’s Kitchen at K-Town Market, 6014 Duraleigh Road, Raleigh, NC | Serves traditional Korean food

Li Ming’s Global Market, 3400 Westgate Drive, Durham | Offers prepared hearty Chinese dishes at affordable prices

Almadina Market, 1019 Method Road, Raleigh | Serves delicious halal South Asian takeout

Bombay Central, 10966 Chapel Hill Rd, Morrisville | Sells Indian sweets, street foods, and more 

La Superior | 3325 North Roxboro Street, Durham

Hispanic supermarket La Superior is known equally for its robust selection of groceries as it is for its in-store panaderia and pasteleria, its tortilleria that churns out fresh handmade tortillas, and its taqueria located inside the store.

La Superior first opened down the street in 1999 in what is now Super Taqueria. The store is owned by three siblings and their spouses, all originally from Mexico City. At the time, Mexican food and ingredients were not readily available in the area (Compare Foods, now a widespread Hispanic grocery chain in the area, didn’t arrive in North Carolina until 2004), and the business quickly struck a chord with the local community.

La Superior offered “traditional things like chorizo, chicharrón, and carnitas that weren’t found in other places; they were like, ‘Hey, this reminds me of back home,’” says Jazmin Flores, a daughter and niece of the store owners and a manager at La Superior. 

Flores’s family operated taquerias in Mexico City before immigrating to the United States, and many of the same dishes they served there are now offered at the taqueria. Though many dishes, from tacos to tortas, are available for purchase across the Triangle today, Flores explains that certain cuts of meat that fill those tortillas and sandwiches are more difficult to find locally.

Cabeza [head], tripa, the intestines, there’s carnitas that come with buche [pork stomach], there’s lengua, tongue,” Flores rattles off, listing some of the La Superior’s more singular menu options.

The bakery and tortilleria were new adventures for La Superior. Committed to getting it right, the market hired individuals who had previous expertise baking and making tortillas on a mass scale in Mexico to come hone its shop’s recipes and processes. Since then, some of those individuals have gone on to open their own successful businesses. 

Each morning, trays of conchas and tres leches are taken out of the oven to wait for customers. A wide variety of baked goods are stocked for shoppers to peruse and fill their own trays with colorful breads, cookies, and pastries.

At 24, Flores says that she and her cousins feel some generational tension when it comes to running the store.

“Our generation now, we want to be a little bit more Americanized, and our family is still more on the traditional Mexican side, so we butt heads,” she says. “Times are different, people are advancing, there are so many new options, and slowly we’re getting there to do those changes.”

Still, when it comes to both adapting and preserving tradition, Flores is proud to be working in the family business in which she was raised.

“Growing up here, this is all I’ve ever known,” she says. “I don’t want to be closed-minded and say I don’t want to learn something else because I actually wanted to go to nursing school—but then I would come here and I’m like, ‘This is home.’

Comment on this story at food@indyweek.com.

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