The last time I heard someone offer a soliloquy on food and its penchant for making culture come alive, I was lounging in the back row of a small room at the East Arlington library, rolling my eyes. I’d been dragged there by my insufferably persuasive foodie wife, who once drove nearly 100 miles roundtrip to taste a Nigerian pastry by the name of Chin chin.
Food to me was nothing more than nutrients to keep me breathing, which is why when I raised my hand to interject I quickly yanked it back when she shot me one of those you-better-not glares.
So here I was one recent Monday in the office of Matthew Loh, owner of Asia Times Square, inquiring about economic growth. Yet when we got on the topic of food, Loh slipped down the rabbit hole of culture and ignorance, and acceptance.
“Here we go again,” I thought.
Then he got personal, talking about arriving in the states at age 6 with a father, mother, and seven siblings. The family made it out of communist Vietnam after a second attempt (the first resulted in a prison term for their father) to an American refugee camp in Malaysia. They spent months in the camp before being sponsored by a Missouri family who’d heard of their plight in a church sermon.
The Lohs worked hard. And it was while traveling to visit a friend; their father stopped at an Arlington Asian market for a bite to eat. He loved it so much that he bought the place.
Asian Times Square, that retail behemoth on Pioneer Parkway where Arlington and Grand Prairie kiss, is the glorious result. What daddy Loh saw in the shop he bought in the 1980s was a place offering a taste of home. This wasn’t a dig at their new home; it was merely an effort to quiet those homesick pangs.
Asia Times Square is now an assemblage of stores where you can buy just about anything. Yet Loh’s eyes have a special gleam when speaking of the assortment of food choices at Asian Times Square, and what that really means.
“The best way to experience a different culture is through music and food,” said Loh, who told me their moniker of promoting “love, opportunity, and hope” spells L-O-H. “Food is an important part of our daily lives,” Loh said. We have to eat to survive. But to be open to trying different foods and different flavors is what I consider living. I live to eat. I don’t necessarily eat to live.”
Loh is right. I watched generations of folks conversing, shopping, eating, playing in intensive ping-pong battles. He says his fastest-growing clientele has been non-Asian. That’s part of his mission statement: to bring different cultures together under one roof.
Sure enough, I came across five teenage boys having lunch in the food court. Two were Asian, one white, one black, and one Hispanic.
“We were at Ella B’s last week, “ said Andrew Wallen, 18. That’s a soul food place on north Collins. Before that, they downed fajitas at Uncle Julio’s and burgers at Tom’s.
“We love to eat, just sit around, talk, stuff like that,” said Lee Min Joong, 17. Do they talk about each other’s lives?
“Too much, probably,” Wallen offered. “Wherever we eat, we want to know where the food comes from, and we sometimes talk about that. That’s pretty cool.”
“Our goal here is to promote other people’s cultures,” said Loh, “I strongly believe that once we know each other, we will find out we are more alike than not alike. We like to eat, and we love to dance. The core value is the same.”
Since Asia Times Square is one of the largest Asian markets in the state, folks come here from all over. Some end up at The Pearl, a swank restaurant where you can knock down everything from dumplings to chicken feet.
Is it so far-fetched that Loh wants Asia Times Square to be that destination connecting cultures and communities?
“I truly believe this is my purpose,” Loh said. “I really do.”