A visit to St. Louis' premier ethnic grocery, Jay International Foods

The recent Festival of Nations on South Grand gave us an excuse, as if we needed one, to drop in on what is now one of the Grand old men, so to speak, of ethnic food stores in St. Louis.

We're speaking, of course, of Jay International Foods (3172 S. Grand Blvd., 772-2552), which started out 25 years ago primarily as a resource for the international-student community of nearby St. Louis University and farther-away Washington University but turned into an anchor for what has grown into the most cosmopolitan street in the city of St. Louis. Back in those days, South Grand was in a downturn, transitioning badly from a neighborhood- and streetcar-driven shopping strip into some new, less-defined role brought about by automobility and urban exodus. A dimming star of a restaurant called Siegfried's IV still drew remnants of past patronage, and the Asia-Thai (later The King & I) restaurant was introducing St. Louis to a new alternative from Southeast Asia, but it's unlikely that anyone would have guessed that, a couple of decades later, these blocks would be transformed into an ethnic kaleidoscope.

Early on, Jay's was best known as a resource for staple and exotic Asian ingredients, but it grew to the point where the full implication of its "International" name is certainly applicable. On one recent visit, a first-generation Slovenian-American who came with me was thrilled to find spices and preserves from his parents' country, and I've frequently come home with authentic Polish stuff for my family. This past week, we picked up Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese variations of noodles; Hungarian paprika; masala spices and matar paneer from India; fiery Korean kimchee; and even some Middle Eastern plum fruit leather.

Granted, over the years a lot of this stuff has made its way into mainstream groceries, but there's still no place like Jay to find a selection of this magnitude, with the added benefit of Chinese bakery Wei Hong and Middle Eastern market the Holy Land right across the street, as well as a couple dozen other ethic stores and restaurants up and down the block. Don't wait for an excuse — put Jay on your shopping list the next chance you get.

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