Where: Garden Asian Market and Gas Station, 6136 University Ave.
Occupation: Owner and manager. Co-owner of the west-side Imperial Garden, next door
Why you should go: You can fill up the tank, pick up Doritos, antifreeze, cigs, live lobsters and all sorts of goodies imported from China, like big fan-shaped dried lotus leaves, lotus root, preserved duck eggs in Styrofoam boxes, frozen pot stickers, a dozen kinds of dried mushrooms, Instant Ladies' Soya Drink and my personal favorite, Three Ballerina Extra Strength Diet Tea for Women and Men.
Do customers stop by to pick up a take-out order of Chinese barbecue duck, and fill up before they take off?
Yes, absolutely. It's unique. Nobody else in town has a gas station, grocery and barbecue shop, all in one. Barbecue shops are very popular in China. I decided to open one when Imperial Garden's former owner, Henry, retired in 2003, and I became the new co-owner. I started cooking at Imperial not long after I emigrated to Madison from Canton in 1989. The gas station was here, but it was run by somebody else. Years ago Henry used the shop space for a Chinese bakery/deli, which did pretty well, but he closed it in '95. I don't know why ' I never asked. We used the empty store as storage for the restaurant until I decided to buy the gas station and expand in 2005. The Asian community is growing, and I figured a grocery on the west side would do well.
Almost everything we carry comes from China, by way of U.S. distributors in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. This has really become a Chinese people's grocery. Americans will come in to pick up a special ingredient for a dish they're making from a cookbook, or to get a bag of fortune cookies or a tea or candy they especially like, but most of my regular customers are Chinese ' they come in and fill up their carts. We have things Asians grew up with ' barbecued chicken feet, and duck tongues simmered slowly in special stock. Very few Americans are adventurous enough to try those. The ones who do either like 'em or hate 'em.
Feng Zhu does the barbecue. He was in the business in China for a long time before he moved to Chicago, where he had a famous barbecue shop in Chinatown. A mutual friend introduced us, and I asked Zhu to come work with me ' I trusted his skill and experience.
Among his specialties are barbecue duck and pork ribs, and also crispy roast duck and pig. We have a huge smoke oven ' I can put a whole 100-pound pig in it. We also have soy and ginger-scallion varieties of steamed chicken; also sautÃed duck. It's all fresh, every day. At first we didn't know how much to make for which days, but we've learned. We do our biggest takeout business on weekends.
I've been cooking for so many years, all food sort of looks the same to me. But I still love anything from the sea, especially lobster and crab.