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A fishy business without an angle

Go to the 99 Ranch Market at the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center and you'll see foods from several different cultures -- Chinese, Japanese, even Indonesian. But the crowd at the back of the store waiting several lines deep for fish might surprise you. The place is filled with Mexicans.

On Easter Sunday, you couldn't walk through the long hordes of people and their shopping carts. The Asian customers at the fish counter were outnumbered by Latinos by about four to one. People waited up to three hours for their precious fish. The shoppers were eager to get their hands on boatloads of tilapia, shrimp and catfish.

Men in boots, jeans and even cowboy hats walked off carrying several bags of fish costing as much as $70. What brings them week after week is the selection and the low prices. The market sells nearly 5,000 different fresh, frozen or live creatures. (But Mexicanos don't do frozen fish, they'll gladly tell you.)

Tilapia, or mojarra, is the most popular item. The fish is deep-fried free of charge, causing long lines and delays. But it's the frying that packs them in. On Easter, some customers took the liberty of popping open beverages while they waited. "It's a small price to pay," says Yuping Wang, the store manager who often serves as an ambassador. She says the fish department is the most profitable in the store. "They know how to greet customers. They know how to make them happy."

Behind the counter, Miguel Perez greets customers who seem to know him by name. The 30-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is one of seven fish men who are Mexican. When asked why so many Mexicans and other Latinos flock to this place, Perez says, "Here, number one for fresh seafood, we have the majority of the fish."

Then he hears "Papasito!" followed by giggles from a female Asian customer. "Soy famoso," Perez says with a sly smile. He says that he's learned both English and a smattering of Chinese on his job.

Perez prepares a large fish for an Asian couple, asking in broken Chinese and hand gestures if they want it chopped. Then, like a sushi chef, he begins to gut, clean and chop the large piece of fish. Knowing he has an audience, he chops off the tail and flings it like a ninja so it sticks against the sink wall to the delight of the giggling couple.

The store is also trying to attract more Latino customers to the meat and produce departments. But for the most part, the Mexicans who come in buy their fish and leave. The heavy traffic has not come without problems. There is a long walk from the fish area to the check-out lines, which has allowed some fish to sprout wings. But management insists it's a small problem for an otherwise very profitable operation.

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