I don’t remember the last time I wanted to buy fresh octopus, but there it was right in front of me, the tentacles wrapping around each other like a thick, fleshy ball of yarn. A little to the left, behind the glass panes of Pacific Mercantile Co.’s fish counter, a salmon head stared up at me with its one visible eyeball.
It’s items like these — as well as other unique Asian products — that make the grocery store so popular with Denver customers, said Kyle Nagai, who co-owns Pacific Mercantile Co. with his siblings, Jolie and Kebo.
The Asian grocery in Denver’s Japanese community offers an exotic shopping experience with goods that can’t be found in many other Colorado shops. It also has an exceptionally friendly, helpful staff.
Pacific Mercantile Co. has been a family owned and operated business since 1944, when George Inai started the company in Sakura Square in downtown Denver. His grandchildren are now in charge of the store, which has seen some changes in the 62 years since its doors opened, particularly in the type of customers that frequent the store.
“A lot of Asians have assimilated so much that we try to tap into the Caucasian clientele,” Nagai said. “It’s kept the business going.”
Mixed in with the nagaimo, a type of yam that can be eaten raw, and satoimo, the edible brown and white root of the taro plant, are dozens of oranges, lemons, limes and apples, while several half-gallons of Robinson Dairy milk products can be found in the coolers next to Japanese pudding and Asian salad dressings. It’s a curious blend of the foreign and familiar: Packages of pastas and rice that have no English writing on the labels can be bought from the cooler by the door along with a Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Milkshake.
“We try to get a little of everything,” Nagai said, noting the wide range of Asian, Indian and American products that line his shelves. “Japanese and sushi are popular now, and so are Thai foods,” he said, but Pacific Mercantile Co. also stocks merchandise from India, Hawaii, China and various Pacific Rim countries. “We have different items to keep people coming back.”
“For people like me and my family who have traveled to Asia and come to love many of those foods, the store is better than a candy shop,” said one customer. “It’s like a side trip to Asia, but with all the comforts of a regular grocer.”
Nagai takes pride in the store’s customer service and the freshness of the products. The fish counter, which can be smelled from the front door, offers a large selection of fresh catches, from octopus to shrimp and the more traditional tuna and salmon filets.
Although the store seems small at first, it opens up into a large space. In the back are shelves filled with cookbooks, dinnerware, imported shampoos, clocks and dolls.
The walls are decorated with bamboo, Asian signage and artwork, and paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. Everything combines into a feast for all five senses — a feast that will make you want to return often.
The third-generation family business offers a unique experience for non-Asian shoppers as well as familiar merchandise for what Nagai calls “loyal old-time customers.”
Nagai shows me a traditional Japanese food that typically only appeals to the “old-time customers.” Natto is a dish, usually eaten with white rice, made from fermented soybeans.
“Japanese people love it, but I’m third-generation Japanese-American and I can’t eat it. I can’t get past the smell,” he said. “It smells like rotten eggs. It smells like rotten anything.”
The natto is in my fridge waiting for me to try. It might be there for a while.
If You Go
Pacific Mercantile Co.
19th and Lawrence streets
Sakura Square in downtown Denver
Hours: Monday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m
Go to www.pacificmercantile.com for samples of products, as well as a selection of recipes.
Josh Bishop is a graduating senior in Metropolitan State College of Denver’s journalism program. He is a native of Michigan.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.