- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - If America really is a melting pot, then places like the corner of Quioccasin Road and Blue Jay Lane in western Henrico County are the hot, bubbly center of our national fondue.

It isn’t much to look at, as intersections go - mostly a cluster of aging strip malls straddling the intersection of a small side street and a busy four-lane road.

But, tucked between an ailing mall and several apartment complexes, largely surrounded by neighborhoods of modest, well-kept homes, the place is a magnet for ethnic food.

Want rolled salted watermelon seeds, masala spice mix for fish, a beef-tongue taco, Balkan dry goods, fresh tortillas, homemade hummus or Guaraná Antarctica, a Brazilian soda pop? Look no further.

“We just love it, because we are just one of them,” said Fernanda Peres, co-owner of Cantinho Do Brasil, a restaurant in one of the shopping centers. “Because America is like, everywhere you go, you meet different people.”

The establishments include a mix of small grocery stores and restaurants. Stores carry Latin American, European, Indian-Nepali and Middle Eastern goods. There are a tortilleria and restaurants serving Mexican, Greek-Italian, Brazilian and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Several establishments in the area are both restaurants and stores. The Cantinho, for example, has a buffet and a small corner devoted to Brazilian brands. The family hopes to add traditional Brazilian barbecue, with rotating spits of meat.

The corner is a place where immigrants and others can buy candles for an upcoming festival of lights, fill grocery lists written in Arabic and, in some cases, hear the language they grew up with.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Falcon Fittipaldi and Weleton Goncalves, both native Brazilians, lingered in the restaurant as the last weekend’s Luxembourg-Spain soccer match replayed on the TV.

“I just come here because I can see the Brazilian people and (eat) good food and meet somebody to talk to,” Fittipaldi said.

The establishments on the corner draw a wide range of customers. That, of course, includes immigrants - local business owners said the nearby apartments are popular with new arrivals.

But at the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli, across the street from the Cantinho, customers include not just Middle Eastern immigrants, but also Americans looking to try something new and military veterans who developed a taste for the region’s cuisine while serving abroad, said Saba Abed, a Palestinian immigrant who runs the deli and market with her husband and son.

There’s a great deal of ethnic diversity among the employees, too.

Trak’s, a Greek and Italian restaurant, is run by an Egyptian family who recently took over from the Egyptian family that started the restaurant. The women helping Peres’ father in the kitchen at Cantinho do Brasil are Honduran. And the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli cooks recipes that come from everywhere from Bosnia to Lebanon.

Shopping in the area can require a little linguistic goodwill. Many of the employees speak fluent English, but some don’t.

For example, when Peres’ father - who speaks Portuguese but not English - is manning the counter at the Brazilian restaurant, English-speaking customers get by with gestures and a few simple words. It usually ends up being something like: “Hey, Papa - fish,” she said.

Almost all of the establishments are family businesses, and it isn’t uncommon at some of the places to walk in and find a knee-high youngster or two playing in the corner.

“It’s a family restaurant, and we are welcoming everybody,” said Sam Hanna, co-owner of Trak’s.

And, of course, there’s the food. It’s frequently very authentic, and almost always homemade.

At the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli, Abed said, mujadara, a meatless dish of lentils, rice and sautéed onions, is a customer favorite, even at catered parties.

“Back in Palestine, it was like the poor man’s meat,” she said, “but here, it’s the sophisticated people’s food.”

The families behind the restaurants and shops took different paths to their businesses. Peres met her husband, who had also come to American from Brazil, in the Richmond area, she said.

“He was from Seattle, and I was from Texas, so we kind of met in the middle,” she said.

The couple also have a construction company and, when they can find time, flip houses, but had always had the idea of opening a restaurant, spurred on by Peres’ father’s history - he ran a small café selling boxed lunches for workers back in Brazil.

When they saw the chance, they took over the space off Quioccasin, where another Brazilian restaurant had closed.

Gopal Gurung, co-owner of Gurung Brothers Store, came to the country as a refugee. His family was Nepali but moved generations ago to nearby Bhutan to work, along with many others, he said. They were subsequently forced out, and Gurung lived in a camp in Nepal as a refugee before coming to America.

The Abed family had a history of men coming to America to work before Jameel Abed married Saba Abed and brought her here.

They bought a business that was, at the time, principally a pita bakery on Horsepen Road. They have expanded the menu through the years, adding deli items.

Now, they do not bake any pita, but do a brisk lunch business in prepared foods. And when they had to leave the space on Horsepen, they bought a defunct Boston Market building on Quioccasin.

“So now, nobody can kick us out anymore,” Saba Abed said with laugh.

Hanna, of Trak’s, was trained as a chemist in Egypt and came to America on a lottery visa. He has done everything from run a Subway restaurant to work in environmental protection in New York. He moved to Virginia to better take care of his family and ended up buying Trak’s from a family at his church.

“It’s been working, thanks (to) God,” he said.


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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