Owner and Taiwanese native Jenny Chen and her daughter Alice Chang opened the long-awaited Grand Asia Market in Stallings last December. Do not let the austere location deter you. Once inside, you're greeted by a festoon of bright red and gold Chinese lanterns and a succession of friendly employees.
The grocery store has a variety of fresh produce, including nine types of choy, and a fish counter with tanks brimming with tilapia and bass swimming side to side. The meat counter has an assortment of cuts and offal. One poultry item of note is the Chinese Silkie, a chicken with fluffy plumage and dark blue, almost black, skin and flesh, that is considered a delicacy throughout Asia. Silkies are sold whole ($9). In addition to Chinese food items, Grand Asia has products from other Asian countries, as well as some Latino products.
The Joy Luck Club, a buffet-style restaurant inside the store, offers three types of duck from the hung oven as well as duck wings and Chinese pork barbecue ribs. Ducks are sold whole ($20) or as an entrée ($8) sliced on white rice with a side of bok choy.
But the draw is Chanelle Cake, the Chinese bake shop. Chen brought a renowned baking chef from Taiwan to train the kitchen crew. Chen, whose first Grand Asia Market opened in 1997 in Cary, added a bakery at that location in 2004.
Anyone who enjoys the Chinese bakeries in L.A. and San Francisco will find themselves at home here. Those who have lived in or visited Hong Kong will recognize the ta ste. Although the authentic display is not here (Chen had a counter made in Shanghai but says the health department would not approve it), the array is dizzying, with more freshly baked items continuously appearing. Cakes, including a Swiss Roll, mini lotus cakes and tofu red bean cake dominate one section. Next are rows of baked and steamed buns, breads, and pastries offered at ridiculously inexpensive prices — many under a dollar.
In addition to the egg custard tart are rice cakes, fried sesame balls and pineapple buns, named for their appearance, not ingredients. Not all the baked items are sweet. Among the savory favorites are pork buns, scallion breads and hot dog rolls (a Chinese version of the cocktail hot dog). All items are made each morning and the inventory changes. Unique items are offered on Saturdays.
Asian bake shops have lived half-lives in Charlotte. A small Japanese bakery in Park Road Shopping Center opened and closed without fanfare while currently a Vietnamese baker is trying to find her way through Mecklenburg County Health's requirements. Ethnic bake shops without a large ex-pat community to support them struggle here. But some owners, like Chen, see the possibilities. Although she admits the response to the bakery here has not been as enthusiastic as the shop in Cary, she hopes Charlotte will discover Chanelle. I do, too. Stallings is a hell of a lot closer than San Francisco.