Ishwer Patel had already been running a grocery store for 10 years when, in 1973, he immigrated to New York City from his native Gujarat, a coastal region of northwest India. So it seemed only natural that he would continue in his role of shopkeeper here in the United States. It took 8 years for him to realize his dream, but when he opened Patel Grocery in 1981, the locals flocked in.
"Sunset Park was an Indian neighborhood back in those days," Ishwer told me when I visited his small, charming, and fully stocked Indian grocery on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park. "Almost everyone who shopped here in the early days was Indian; no one else knew about these products." Those products include bulk-size bags of all types of legumes and rice; a wealth of dried spices, both whole and ground; unusual oils like mustard and coconut; fresh produce such as okra, miniature cucumbers, and spicy green chilies; and prepackaged crispy snack mixes like chaat and fried nuts.
"Over time, the neighborhood changed and became more diverse. All kinds of people started coming in here and trying our products." With an expanded client base, Ishwer was able to start his own import label, America's Best VEP, and he now distributes wholesale to Indian vendors and grocers all over the city.
Patel Grocery's accessibility is certainly a draw; most literally, the shop's entrance is steps from the 53rd Street R train stop, making it easy to pop in, do some shopping, and (even with overloaded bags) get right back on the train and on your way home. But the welcoming staff is what really sets it apart. Patel is a family enterprise: Ishwer runs the business end of things, his wife does most of the sorting and bagging of bulk items, and his nephew runs the register. The Patels have been in the neighborhood for almost 40 years, and they're attuned to the needs of their customers. They're always happy to help explain what an ingredient is, how to cook it, and are open to suggestions about what kinds of products to carry.
The store's carefully curated product line includes mixes for traditional breads and desserts and a mind-boggling array of pre-blended spices that help make preparing common—though perhaps intimidating, for a first timer—Indian meals much easier. "People love these spice mixes," Ishwer commented. "This way, you don't have to buy a whole bunch of different spices that you don't know and might never use again. Here, they're mixed for you, so they help reduce the margin of error when you're making a dish for the first time." Patel's freezer cases also offer a full line of heat and eat foods, which, Ishwer says, are extremely popular with the many doctors and nurses who live nearby. "They might not have time to cook, but at least they can pick up something delicious on their way home from work," Ishwer said.
For the more adventurous home cook, never fear: Patel offers a host of intriguing ingredients that will keep you experimenting in the kitchen. There are legumes of all types, from common chickpeas and lentils to less often seen types such as pigeon peas, mung beans, and black and yellow gram. The spice selection ranges from the familiar—whole cinnamon and cloves, mustard seeds of all types—to the exotic—asafoetida, an oniony-tasting, pungent-smelling spice also known as "stinking gum," and amchoor, a sour mango powder. In the produce section, Patel stocks fresh curry leaves, as well as that love-it-or-hate-it fruit, bitter melon.
Patel Grocery has been in business for more than 30 years, a longevity that's not easy for small, independent businesses in New York City to attain. Visiting the store, it's easy to see why: it offers a wonderful selection of high quality, fairly priced products, and is helmed by a friendly, approachable family that's well acquainted with the neighborhood and its inhabitants. So the next time you find yourself in need of some whole cumin seeds or a block of fresh paneer, just remember: Patel is right off the R train.
5303 4th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)
About the author: Lauren Rothman is a former Serious Eats intern, a freelance catering chef, and an obsessive chronicler of all things culinary. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.