‘Kalamazoo could handle it’
Xin Liu and her 80-year-old mother roll the dough, make the filling, and pinch painstaking little crimps in the potstickers by hand each week.
It is labor-intensive work, but something she feels compelled to do.
“Making dumplings is really becoming a lost art in the culinary world,” she said. “But I want to trace things back to home cooking, to cook how your parents used to cook for you.”
Cravings Deli has been inspired by the taste from Asian kitchens since it opened four years ago inside the specialty market Pacific Rim Foods on West Kilgore Road just east of South Westnedge Avenue.
Public demand helped Cravings survive the pandemic, with expanded hours as of this month, just like its small but dedicated fan base encouraged the pan-Asian grocer when it opened in 2008.
Liu, co-owner of the business with her husband Anson Liu, provides the homey, culinary vision for the casual, dine-in and brisk take-out business.
“The things I’m making with Cravings are very traditional,” she said. “I don’t have fried rice, or sweet and sour chicken. Foodies have been really grateful for some different types of food.”
Cravings Deli dishes are derived from an Asian culinary variety, like the ingredients found on the shelves at Pacific Rim. The menu may be smaller than those at more commonly found Chinese restaurants in this country, but it’s not noticeable because the unique array of options leaves many strong contenders from which to choose. In addition, there are usually several specials each day, along with Asian desserts and a full menu of bubble teas.
Appetizers include Vietnamese summer rolls, Chinese-American egg rolls, crab rangoons, and the potstickers. The Vietnamese egg rolls won out this time, with their crispy, thin skin and a light pork and vegetable filling.
Ramen makes up half of the entree selections, including tonkotsu (pork belly), BBQ pork (traditional Chinese char siu), spicy miso, Sichuan beef brisket, and shoyu (seasoned with Japanese soy sauce).
Other entrees include curries; diced lamb with cumin and chili powder; pan-fried scallion pancakes rolled with cold, marinated beef, cilantro and green onions; mushrooms with bok choy; and a thinly sliced marinated and grilled beef short ribs dish called galbi.
The galbi has quickly become a favorite – a friend declared that he could eat the dish all day – with its slightly sweet and charred meat served with rice and a few marinated vegetables. The secret to the dish’s subtle sweetness, Liu said, is the pureed Asian pear that is mixed into the marinade.
The bok choy and mushrooms taste like you’re sitting down to dinner in a Chinese friend’s home. It is a simple dish of stir-fried bok choy and plump shiitake mushrooms, with simple but distinct flavors. The mushrooms add a meaty quality and earthy flavor to the dish, which is simply sauced.
On a return visit, I tried the Cantonese stir fry and the lemongrass pork chops. The pork chops were thin and quickly grilled, with just a hint of the citrus-mintiness of the lemongrass. Like the galbi, the dish benefits from just a gentle chewiness. The Cantonese stir fry was a mix of char siu, Chinese BBQ pork, and bok choy in a slightly salty brown sauce and served over thin egg noodles.
Pacific Rim moved to its current, vastly larger location in 2018, a decade after it launched in the south end of the Oakwood Plaza in the Winchell neighborhood.
“We barely had any customers,” she said. “But the great thing about Kalamazoo is that people are always eager to support a small, local business. There were a lot of curious people who wandered into the store, but they didn’t know what to buy. There were all of these foreign products and they didn’t know how to use them.”
Liu began offering cooking lessons as a way to help curious Kalamazooans figure out how to use some of the unique grocery items the store offered.
Among her most popular classes were those that showed people how to make potstickers at home. She quickly moved to other Chinese classics such as hot pot and steamed, whole fish.
“It didn’t matter what classes I offered, people followed and wanted to come,” Liu said. “The appetite of foodies in Kalamazoo is way more diversified than people think.”
The cooking classes were a good litmus test for Cravings Deli. Liu said she wanted to eliminate as many fried items as possible and to focus on some of her favorite foods across the Asian diaspora — dishes which might not be well known among American diners.
“It was a risk, but I knew from my cooking classes that Kalamazoo could handle it,” she said.
They could have moved from their Oakwood site a lot sooner, she said, but they waited until they had the right location, which allowed them the space they needed to better serve their customers with things like an entire aisle dedicated to instant ramen and another aisle with Asian kitchen wares.
Patience is difficult for an entrepreneur, especially in the food business, but it has paid off for the Lius. They’ve now added Tuesday hours again, the grocery store is opening earlier, and classes are likely to resume as well, evidence of a success in combating the COVID economy.
With an increase in construction material costs and delays, however, a planned Texas Township location previously due to open this fall has been paused. Liu said, for now, they’ll wait. They’ll focus attention on expanding offerings at Cravings and making sure Pacific Rim maintains its popular offers like baked goods from Chicago and finds hot new items (matcha-flavored Kit Kats anyone?).
They are happy to create a kitchen that welcomes the community into the heart of an Asian home, because Kalamazoo has welcomed them and become a home for them, their business and their family.
“We really appreciate the Kalamazoo environment and how supportive people are to small businesses,” she said. “During all of the national Asian hate crimes, we felt protected and loved. Whenever we’ve needed something, the community answers. That’s tremendous.”
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