Slowly, steadily, the Laurel area is being transformed into a global grocery village. Along with a rich array of eateries featuring international flavors, the local landscape is now a destination for more exotic supermarkets whose shelves brim with hard-to-find items gleaned from farmers' fields in Central and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Many immigrants arriving in Laurel bring with them fatter paychecks and more disposable income, said Karl Brendle, who oversees the city's Community Planning and Business Services Department.
Brendle cited the Wellington development as a good example. Residents there might have "the Range Rover in the driveway, and an active lifestyle and discerning shopping and dining habits," he said.
Wealthier newcomers bled into a Laurel mosaic with immigrants who are less wealthy, creating what Brendle calls a "hybrid diversity," something he said is typical in the Baltimore/Washington corridor.
The city has expanded its passport issuance days, Brendle said, to accommodate a growing demand for passports by city residents traveling home to their native countries.
"Our world becomes smaller each year," he said.
From Mexico to Israel
Laurel is now home to outlets that regularly stock favorites like sausage from Guatemala and yams from Ghana, attracting shoppers who live in Laurel and others from the surrounding area. But the most dominant new markets in Laurel are those that offer groceries with a Latin beat. At the El Toro Supermarket on Laurel-Bowie Road, customers can pick up everything from fresh fajita meat and chicken necks to bags of red beans from El Salvador and cream from Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico. Bright yellow jerseys sporting the word "Brasil" dangle on hangers.
Standing shoulder to shoulder near the snack bar, Mirna Rivera and her daughter, Brenda, waited for their pupusas — considered the national dish of El Salvador.
"There's a lot of international food here," said Brenda, a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. "This is the first time I've tried pupusas here," she said, as the clerk carefully tucked three of the meat, cheese and bean medleys into a Styrofoam box.
Mirna Rivera, who bakes and cooks at an eatery at Laurel Park race track, said she's noticed an uptick in the number of Hispanic residents in Laurel.
"There are a lot of Mexicans now, and a lot of them work at the race track," she said. Along with the wave of new immigrants comes restaurants that dish comfort food from back home. Still, she acknowledged, "the food you make at home is always better."
One of Laurel's older ethnic markets, Aladdin Food Market on Main Street, caters to customers whose tastes lean more toward the cuisines of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, from Italy to Israel and beyond.
Nadia Obeid, who lives in Odenton and is a native of Palestine, said she visits the store monthly and is especially interested in picking up Kalamata olives from Greece, hookahs — glass smoking devices — good bread and fava beans.
"It's a nice place to shop," Obeid. "I find all the stuff I need here."
Store manager Mary Khoury, like Obeid, is originally from Palestine. The business, Khoury noted, has been open in the same location for 13 or 14 years, adding that sales are strong, with plenty of repeat customers. Many of her regulars come from College Park, Beltsville and Ellicott City, where they fill their baskets with Greek, French, Egyptian and Bulgarian cheeses, pickled eggplant and Jordan almonds.
Khoury said the store's owner operates another ethnic grocery store, Thomas Market, in Wheaton. She said she's "hopeful" that new customers will discover the store once the new Towne Centre Laurel opens
Just across the river in North Laurel, Apna Bazaar is an ethnic food store with deep roots in the Indian and Pakistani communities. This small, cozy store with narrow aisles and friendly banter has been around for 25 years, according to Adarsh Kumar, whose wife, Vena Kumari, owns the store.