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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Asian supermarkets, restaurants and boba businesses are popping in ‘Gainesville’s Chinatown’

Corner of Southwest 34th Street and Archer Road home to more than 15 Asian businesses

The sound of people speaking Chinese, Japanese or Tagalog layer over K-pop harmonies. The smell of Indian spices floats in from next door. It’s the sight, sound and smell of home.

Located on the corner of Southwest 34th Street and Archer Road and nicknamed “Gainesville’s Chinatown” by some for its high concentration of Asian restaurants, there are more than 15 Asian businesses within a mile of each other.

Isis Dwyer, a 27-year-old fourth-year UF anthropology doctoral student, considers Teastori, a boba store on Southwest 34th Street, one of her third places, a place outside of home or work.

Whenever Dwyer and her classmates want to escape the windowless lab in the basement of Turlington, they’ll meet up at Teastori where she usually orders a strawberry mojito, she said. 

Dwyer was happily surprised to see other cultures represented in the city. She has Jamaican heritage, and when she first moved to Gainesville she expected to be surrounded by white people all of the time, she said.

“Seeing little pockets of people of color making food that I enjoy has been awesome,” Dwyer said.

Back home in New Jersey, she would buy chicken and broccoli or General Tso's chicken from the nearest Chinese restaurant when she had a bad day. Now, she continues the tradition in Gainesville.

“If it's providing that sort of comfort and home for me, I can only imagine what that's doing for people who actually identify with these ethnicities,” she said.

However, after she’s seen New York City’s Chinatown, she believes calling it “Gainesville’s Chinatown” is an oversimplification. She sees the area more as an “eclectic mix of Asian ethnicities.” 

In addition to Chinese restaurants, there are South Asian businesses like Indian Street Food and Vietnamese restaurants like Pho Ha Noi. Some places combine different cuisines, like Sweet Buns bakery and Enson Market.

From fresh fish to bags of basmati rice, Enson Market is stocked with rare-to-find ingredients and snacks popular in Asia. 

Gainesville resident Megan Makahiya shops at Enson Market to buy ingredients for pancit, a Filipino noodle dish. Makahiya, 36, is Filipino, and she makes traditional food for her two children, Rami and Asad. 

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Knowing she has a place to buy noodles for pancit or wrappers for lumpia is reassuring, she said. 

“I feel like we’re being seen,” Makahiya said. 

Like Dwyer, Makahiya found herself comparing Gainesville to a bigger city she’s lived in before. She figured, as a college town, it wouldn’t have many diverse stores or restaurants.

She gives props to Gainesville for having so many Asian-owned and Asian-centered shopping in one niche area, she said. 

She believes having so many different Asian places to shop and eat so close together gives people the opportunity to become familiar with new cultures they may be curious about. 

“It's just bringing more insight to other people's culture instead of ‘vanilla,’” she said.

Enson Market meets her needs, and the diverse surrounding businesses mean her family gets to experience other cultures as well.

Some of the restaurants combine cuisines from several Asian countries like Zen Noodle Bar, which sells popular dishes from different cultures like pad thai, Korean kimchi fried rice or Vietnamese pho.

Miranda Stark, the 26-year-old general manager of Zen Noodle Bar, thinks having a wide selection and a variety of restaurants in the area means there is something for everyone, she said. 

From a business standpoint, having so many Asian restaurants close together builds a close community, and the area is easily recognizable, she said.

“I think it's similar to how every time you see a CVS, you see a Walgreens,” Stark said. “I think people know this as a spot to come and get good Asian food.”

She visits other near-by restaurants and stores during her free time including Kung Fu Tea, another one of the six boba places in the area. 

Another one of those places is Frosty Fox, a boba franchise that started in Gainesville. The Southwest 34th Street location is owned by 48-year-old Po-Fung Chen. When meeting customers, he introduces himself by his American name, Brad. 

Chen came to America so his children would receive a better education and started the franchise to support his family, he said. 

Sam Fessahaye, an 18-year-old Buchholz High School senior, has worked for Frosty Fox since February 2022. 

Chen treats staff and customers like family as well, Fessahaye said. 

Though he works at a boba store, he is not a big boba guy, but he does enjoy Asian restaurants, he said.

He lived in Gainesville his whole life but only discovered “Gainesville’s Chinatown” when he started working at Frosty Fox. 

From a cultural point of view, he thinks the area helps people connect with others from similar backgrounds. 

“Coming to a restaurant, or even the grocery store, you can meet people who may be from the same place as you and they speak the same language,” Fessahaye said. 

For some, it’s also a place to share their culture. Ashly Almendrala, a 19-year-old UF microbiology sophomore, was born in the Philippines and moved to Florida when he was six. 

Being in a less homogeneous society with a lot of diversity has been a wonderful experience, he said. Now, he works at Tiger Sugar, another boba store located inside Enson Market. 

His official job title is bobarista. 

Mostly, he loves to share his favorite food with friends and customers.

“I'm that kind of person that doesn't like to gatekeep culture,” he said. “I'd love for other people to discover what this area is.”

It’s also satisfying to have so many different Asian cuisines represented, he said. 

“Asian people are just not your typical East Asian, like Chinese, Korean, Japanese,” Almendrala said. “There's more culture to that.”

So from the various Asian businesses, maybe calling this corner of the city “Gainesville’s Chinatown” may not be an accurate representation of everything there. 

But as people gather around tables to drink and eat and cook fare from their heritage, it may not be home, but it surely reminds people of it.

Contact Aubrey at abocalan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.

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Aubrey Bocalan

Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.


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