You may have heard we’re slated to get a shiny new Publix in 2016. The Firestone building location will be convenient to UAB and downtown, not to mention the residents of Cityville and Parkside. But the truth is we already a great grocery option. It’s called Chai’s Oriental Food Store.
The store is the epitome of a small, local business, and most days the two owners will be the ones ringing up your order. It has a modest, curated selection of items – like a New York bodega, but you won’t go home to an apartment the size of a closet.
Chai’s is our very favorite local supplier of bok choy and 25-pound bags of Jasmine rice. A drizzle of the hot sesame oil they sell makes everything taste just a little more alive (or engulfed in flames if you prefer the heavy-handed approach). In the refrigerated section, they stock kimchi that really might have been made by someone’s Korean grandma, plus an assortment of sodas and the biggest bundles of chives in Birmingham. They even sell sushi grade tuna, which is well beyond our expectations for a neighborhood store. But the best part for those who live downtown: They also stock things like milk and eggs, so you won’t need to drive to Homewood, or even Forest Park, for a last-minute staple.
The smart shoppers show up on Fridays, when fresh samosas are available to celebrate the weekend. The genius shoppers follow Chai’s Facebook feed for new items in stock, store specials, and menu suggestions. Our recent favorite tip: a game day snack suggestion of baked squid. The package says it’s “crispy and fun,” and the Chai folks promise it’s “better than tostitos!”
Part of Chai’s appeal is the way it makes familiar foods available to expats from Africa and Asia and new foods accessible for those who, like us, grew up on grits. So take our Chai challenge of choosing a mysterious new vegetable and figuring out what to do with it (Hint: The owners can help).