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Wednesday, February 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fire and rice: Korean markets spice up Highway 99

Special to The Seattle Times

Two adjacent buildings along Highway 99 in Lynnwood are symbolic of the changing demographics of this densely commercial thoroughfare.

The smaller one is vacant, though its faded sign still reads "Pal-Do World Oriental Grocery Store." Next door is the new Pal-Do World International Market. At 40,000 square feet, it's more than double the size of the old store and houses not just a market, but a mini-mall of Asian shops.

"It's oversized for now," says Korean-born Byung C. Park, president and owner of Pal-Do World, "but in three to five years it will be just right."

The Korean population is growing north of Seattle in Shoreline, Edmonds and Lynnwood. And where people settle, food inevitably follows. Markets like Pal-Do World, BooHan and Hodori, as well as restaurants like the recently opened Mi Rak (425-673-9292) and Chung Sol (425-741-7000) are among the many businesses catering to that expanding population.

Historically the Seattle area's Korean population has clustered around Highway 99 south of the city, in Federal Way and Tacoma. But recent census figures show Snohomish County's Korean population more than doubled, from 3,787 in 1990 to 7,654 in 2000. Shoreline, Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mukilteo rank among the top eight ZIP codes in King and Snohomish counties with respect to Korean population.

As Korean merchants proliferate, signs along the highway that display the ornate Hangeul script are becoming as common as kimchi in Seoul.

Just north of the King County line is Seoul Plaza (23830 Highway 99, Edmonds), where Hodori Market occupies a corner niche between Yunnie, a cafe serving bubble tea, espresso, ice cream and shakes, and HoSoonYi (425-775-8196), a Korean restaurant rated a favorite by Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson.

Hodori has been around for almost a decade, and though it expanded three years ago, it's not large. Crammed with packaged and frozen Korean foods as well as fresh produce, the store also offers freshly made banchan, pungent little side dishes that accompany a traditional Korean meal — sort of the Korean equivalent of an American salad bar.

BooHan Plaza (22618 Highway 99, Edmonds) opened in April 2000 and is anchored by BooHan Plaza Oriental Market. The Edmonds shopping center, along with two others like it in Tacoma and Federal Way, is owned by the Han family and includes several Korean-owned businesses, among them the Japanese restaurant, Sushi Moto (425-673-5477).

Jae Han, 33, manages the Edmonds store. He was only 4 when his family moved from Seoul to Tacoma.

"I think a lot of Koreans settled around the military bases down south years ago because a lot of American GI's came home with Korean brides," he said. He speculates that some of the second generation may be moving north, attracted by newer housing and jobs.

His father, Boo Han, initially manufactured tofu and rice cakes. The family branched out into the retail food business in 1980, operating from a 500-square-foot addition to their home that was outfitted with a chest freezer and a little cash register.

Inspired by Albertson's, Olson's and Larry's stores, Boo Han named his store after himself. "It's not a Korean custom to put the family name on a business, but my father decided to do like the Americans do," says his son.

BooHan Market stocks the fiery sauces and other Korean ingredients not commonly found this far north. A brief tour reveals fresh quail eggs, preserved duck eggs, roasted dried laver (seaweed), bamboo leaves, twig-like bracken and sweet-potato stems. At the meat counter, pork neck, beef knee bones and thinly sliced meat for bulgogi or kal-bi are on display. Octopus, hagfish, hairtail, sea squirt, mackerel, soft-shell crabs and other seafood fill the freezer, and you'll find many kinds of fresh and jarred kimchi, the spicy Korean condiment made of pickled, fermented cabbage and other flavorings.

Pal-Do World owners Byung and Young Su Park have been married business partners for 23 years, ever since they opened their first Asian grocery store in South Bend, Ind. From there, they moved to New York City, opening a grocery store on the Upper West Side. But five years of hard work seven days a week took a toll on the family. "My wife was always sick," Park recalls. "We had to make a change."

Spurred largely by fond memories of the Northwest from Byung Park's tour of duty at Fort Lewis, the couple and their two young sons moved to Tacoma, where they started a wholesale business. Soon though, they were back in retail, opening the first Pal-Do World in Tacoma in 1992. Now they operate five stores in the Northwest, including one that opened last week in a 20,000-square-foot former QFC at Lake Hills Shopping Center in Bellevue.

The Lynnwood Pal-Do World is a Uwajimaya wannabe. The market is the hub of the warehouse-like building; around its perimeter and on the mezzanine boutiques sell clothing, housewares, herbal remedies, gifts, books and videos.

The market's shelves are stocked with a variety of Korean and other Asian food products. There's a vast selection of kimchi, a whole wall of dumplings and entire aisles devoted to noodles and sauces. The produce section offers burdock root, fresh turmeric, persimmons, ginkgo nuts and many kinds of radishes. The meat case displays oxtail, pork belly and chunked rib-eye steak. Tanks hold live catfish, tilapia and oysters. Ice chills fresh mackerel, sea cucumbers, octopus and abalone. Huge freezers maintain an ocean of seafood, as well as sliced lotus and taro root, chopped lemongrass, shredded coconut, bean curd and mochi ice cream.

In the food court, shoppers dip into bubbling cauldrons of tofu soup from Cho Dang Tofu Restaurant, slurp noodles from Sunny Deli or down dumplings from The Dumpling House. Pastries from Café Vienna lure those with a sweet tooth.

But even a store the size of Pal-Do World may face stiff competition when 99 Ranch Market moves into the former K-Mart building at 220th Street and Highway 99 in Edmonds. Slated to open this July, the store will be the second in Washington for this 23-store, California-based chain. The full-service market specializing in Asian foods will occupy 50,000 square feet. The company plans to sublet another 25,000 square feet — 13 street-front units — to other, as-yet-undisclosed tenants.

"Our store at The Great Wall Mall in Kent covers the south end," says Alan Lee, vice chairman of 99 Ranch Markets. "We saw a demand up north, and a void in Asian markets."

This particular spot offered good access, plentiful parking and favorable demographics. "Figures we saw show almost 50,000 Asians are within a 7-mile radius of the location," Lee says.

Jae Han doesn't seem worried by competition from 99 Ranch.

"I think a store like that will bring a lot more Asians to the area," he says. "I don't think it will be a bad thing. We specialize in Korean food; 99 Ranch has more of a Chinese focus. Hopefully, a synergy will develop."

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