Until recently, the Waco home cook in search of Asian groceries was more or less stuck with browsing a scant shelf or two of non-perishable products in the “international” aisle of H-E-B. In the fall of 2020, however, Joni Navarra and Tim Kulkarni set out to change that by opening Waco’s first Asian grocery store, East Market and Goods.
Conveniently located at the intersection of Highway 84 and Loop 340, East Market is a haven for fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable products from countries all over Asia, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, China, Korea, and India, to name a few. The in-store deli is a gem of an eatery offering all kinds of dishes to spark up your lunches and save you from cooking dinner.
Filipino Flavors at East Market Deli
The kitchen at the East Market Deli, a gleaming, state-of-the-art affair viewed through hanging plastic partitions, is the first thing you’ll see when you approach the counter. A printed menu on the counter will clue you into the meals offered, and a handy computer kiosk beside the menu allows you to place your order seamlessly.
After ordering, you can sit on one of the four counter seats and watch the team of skilled cooks prepare your food, or while you wait, browse the aisles for a beverage—milk teas, ume sodas, cold brew coffees, sparkling yuzu water—because there’s plenty to choose from.
The menu, which highlights cooking from many countries but leans heavily toward Filipino food, offers appetizers, entrees, and desserts that you won’t find anywhere else in Waco. You can add a perfectly-cooked, over-easy egg to most dishes, along with a few garnishes like Kewpie mayo, furikake, and some seriously good, no-fooling hot sauce.
The sisig, a classic Filipino dish, is a hearty serving of pan-fried, skin-on pork belly in a slightly sweet and definitively sour, sticky sauce served over white rice. The pork is chewy-tender with just the right amount of fattiness, and the rich sauce-meat-rice combo pairs well with the included side of Lola’s atchara. This bright, tart, and crunchy salad consists of pickled green papaya ribbons (finally a source for papaya salad in Waco!), a few thinly-sliced carrots and bell peppers, ginger, and garlic. Top the whole thing with an over-easy egg and you’ve got a killer lunch.
The chicken adobo is pure comfort food, with tender chunks of chicken thigh simmered in that unmistakable, umami-rich, soy-vinegar adobo sauce, served over garlic rice and topped with two pork lumpia. It’s the kind of thing even unadventurous eaters will happily devour.
And the lumpia? They are perfection. No thicker than your index finger, they arrive packed tightly in a little cup with a side of sweet chili dipping sauce. The pork, chicken, and veggie versions are all outstanding. Order extra, or you’ll be fighting off your dining companions.
There are many more dishes to explore, along with rotating specials that vary widely from Japanese sukiyaki beef to Indian keema. Every Friday, the deli features a Japanese sando pop-up with stellar options like the pork or chicken katsu, the rising sun (spam ‘n’ eggs for the win!), and the ramen egg salad, all served on the fluffiest of house-made milk bread.
But do not, on any account, skip out on dessert. There is always a sweet sando on the Japanese pop-up menu—try the mango float!—and you can usually find a few in the cold case during the week. Fluffy milk bread, whipped cream, a variety of fruits like ripe mangoes or summer berries or bananas, sometimes vanilla custard and vanilla wafers—these sandos are light, creamy, and refreshing. Eat one just as it’s defrosting and you’ve got yourself the perfect antidote to a Texas summer.
Another not-to-be-missed dessert is the turon. Crispy, almost custardy egg rolls are stuffed with banana, jackfruit, and cream cheese, then deep fried, drizzled with a deeply browned caramel sauce, and sprinkled with ube sugar and pistachios. Save your spoon from lunch because after you’ve inhaled all three turon, you’ll want to scoop up the gooey, nutty goodness at the bottom of the cup.
A Small Yet Mighty Grocery Store
A huge amount of thoughtful planning went into the creation of East Market, and it shows. The impressive inventory of shelf-stable goods is organized by product type instead of country, a deliberate move on the part of Joni and Tim in an effort to not only help customers find what they need but also to encourage discovery.
The produce selection is ample and attractive, with six or seven hard-to-find mushrooms on display next to long beans, chive flowers, papayas, Bengali squash, and the best mangoes in town.
Folks looking for a quick meal will love the extensive prepared food offerings. The freezers are full of myriad frozen dumplings, pork buns, samosas, noodles, and naan. The grab-and-go shelves near the deli offer freshly-made lunches, bento boxes, and snacks from the deli. The noodle aisle will fulfill every instant soup craving, from spicy tom yum to meat-free tonkatsu. And for dessert, you’ll find frozen mooncakes, mochi, Japanese cake rolls, and a selection of hipster ice creams from the incredibly popular (and very good) Van Leewen creamery in Brooklyn.
Avid cooks will appreciate the considerable array of spices, legumes, sauces, and flours, including a few non-Asian wild cards like King Arthur doppio 00 pizza flour (one of the best pizza flours on the market, and East Market is the only local store that carries it). There’s also pork belly, sushi-grade tuna and salmon, pork floss, quail eggs, balut, frozen pork blood (an essential ingredient in dishes like dinuguan), and the list goes on.
Spreading the word about East Market has been a grassroots effort from the get-go, with Joni initially spending two hours a day distributing stacks of flyers door-to-door in Waco neighborhoods. Word of mouth, social media, a temporary arrangement with Baylor in which the university bussed students out to East Market for groceries—Joni and Tim have been hustling since day one, and it’s starting to pay off.
“We’re slowly getting recognized by the community,” says Joni, “but every single day we have people coming in and saying, ‘I didn’t know you guys were here. I’ve been looking for this ingredient, and now I can get it here!’”
Kulkarni & Navarra Are Making Waco a Food Hub
Tim and Joni have big ambitions for their business and for the Waco food scene. While neither hail from professional food backgrounds, both are passionate eaters and talented cooks.
They met in Houston and began traveling the globe together, eating their way across most of Asia and Europe and making note of every outstanding dish and ingredient along the way. After moving around from Texas to New Orleans, Tim’s work brought him, Joni, and their two young children to Waco.
“When we moved here, immediately it felt like home,” says Joni. “The kids loved the schools, we loved the community and the small-town, big-city feel.” But there was a noticeable lack of food diversity in Waco’s grocery stores. “We just hated the drive to get little, simple ingredients that we couldn’t get locally.”
With their combined backgrounds in retail management, food science, IT, and community service, they decided to address the problem themselves by opening Waco’s first Pan-Asian market.
“I mean, almost every place we lived in was right next to a grocery store,” says Joni. “So, just the experience of creating this place was almost like bringing us back home, which is what we want to do here for our customers.”
Their path to entrepreneurship was a natural extension of their passions and talents. Joni and Tim are building a community around their market and they have big plans for the future.
“Our goal is to make Waco a food hub, not just a stopover between Dallas and Austin,” says Tim. “Waco has incredible talent that can’t break out.”
“First it was a lack of supplies, where you couldn’t find that one ingredient,” says Joni, “and we’re fixing that.”
“The second thing is,” says Tim, “you can be really authentic, or you can be in business. A couple of things on the deli menu have some liberties [recipe-wise] and that’s when Joni starts yelling at me,” laughs Tim. “She’ll say, ‘It isn’t traditional,’ and I’ll say, ‘But it has to be good so people will buy it.’ And then next time, they’ll be a little more adventurous.”
(It took Tim three months, for example, to convince Joni to let him put cream cheese in the turon. But it worked.)
He and Joni hope to provide the Waco community with a welcoming, one-stop shop for products from all over Asia, and they are particularly interested in educating customers about Joni’s Filipino culture.
“We’re concerned with bringing broader education to Filipino cooking and culture. Filipinos are always in between Hispanic and Asian cultures and it’s tough to break out from that,” says Tim. “Food is one of the vehicles to do that. Filipino culture is becoming more prevalent [in the US mainstream], but there are maybe a handful of Filipino restaurants in the nation.”
“You often have an auntie who will cater to everybody and there are quite a few of those in Waco today,” says Joni. “But because they don’t really advertise too much, they stay within their own little community. We want to highlight what that Filipino cuisine really is.”
“This is our family comfort dish,” says Tim. “Kids sick? Lugaw. Rainy day, cold, or local apocalypse? Lugaw. Hungry and don’t know what to make? Lugaw. It’s warm, filling, savory, and bright at the same time, which is why it’s great comfort food that makes you want to hide under a blanket and relax or just feel better.”
Sound advice. The next time you need a hug, cook yourself a pot of lugaw.
1 c jasmine rice, rinsed
4 T veg or canola oil, divided in half
6–8 c water
1 c chicken stock
4 chicken thighs, bone-in
1 thumb ginger, peeled and minced
1 lemon, thinly sliced, seeds removed
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 bundle scallions (about 3), green tops thinly sliced, white bottoms kept whole
Add 6–8 cups of water to a large pot and bring to a boil. Rub chicken thighs with salt, then add 2 T of oil to skillet over medium heat. Add chicken thighs and cook until browned. Add browned chicken to pot of water, and boil chicken until tender and falling apart. Remove chicken from the brothy water, allow chicken to sit until cool enough to handle, and then shred chicken, discarding the bones or saving them for a stock later.
Heat skillet on low, add remaining 2 T oil, scallion whites, garlic, and ginger. Cook over low heat until well-browned, then add the garlic and ginger to the broth pot. Discard scallion whites and reserve the flavorful oil for garnish.
Add rice to the broth and stir constantly, being careful not to let the rice settle at the bottom of the pot, about 20 minutes. Once the rice has thickened, add shredded chicken and stir to combine. Dish lugaw into bowls and garnish with sliced lemon, scallion tops, black pepper, and the reserved cooking oil.
Joni and Tim have plans for another brick-and-mortar location, and they dream of hosting a Filipino kumayan, a communal feast where food is served on banana leaves and guests eat with their hands (“kumayan” means “hands” in Tagalog).
“It requires a lot of community participation,” says Joni, “because that’s what it is: bringing community together and connecting through food. It circles around to the whole reason why we’re doing this.”
Learn more about Waco’s local food scene on the Waco Insider podcast Eat, Drink, Repeat, hosted by Angelica Mazé.