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STIRRINGS OF SUCCESS ON BAILEY AVENUE

With apologies to Marvin Hamlisch, the smell of success isn't always so sweet. Sometimes, success can smell kind of fishy.

It can smell, in short, like the aroma wafting over Bailey and LaSalle avenues, where the An Chau Asian Market recently reopened.

The store used to be across the street. Business was so good, though, that owners Andy Pham and his wife, Chou Nguyen, moved and expanded. Their new shop, about the size of a Wilson Farms, is prettier than the old one. Neon signs read "International Market," and inside the outline of a fish boasts, "Fresh Seafood."

Pham and Chou, both from Vietnam, speak little English. Discussing the expansion, Pham can manage little more than: "We can stock more items."

In this case, though, actions speak louder than words.

You don't think of Bailey, near Kensington, as up-and-coming. The street has more than its share of pawn shops, thrift stores and appliance rental centers. It throbs with sirens and pounding stereos. You don't think, on first glance, that opportunity lives here.

But it must. Otherwise, this Asian store wouldn't have inspired its owners to invest more in it. And the market does more than add life to a struggling neighborhood. It adds life to the whole city.

The An Chau Asian Market is like the stores in Toronto's Chinatown. It's a bit rugged. Its fishy smell reminds you that you're not in a supermarket.

Here, as on Toronto's Spadina Street, shopping is an adventure. Frozen food cases stock exotic delicacies, some bearing only Asian labels. You'll also find quail eggs, melon seeds, lime leaves, pickled ginger, yellow palm oil, black bean paste, dried fish, lemongrass, black vinegar, pickled mudfish, chrysanthemum tea -- you name it.

Weekends, you'll see -- and smell -- big crates of fresh fish. "It comes in from New York City on Friday morning," Chou says.

A black-haired 6-year-old girl by her side pipes up: "And Saturdays and Sundays we clean the fish!" (Asked if she helps, she wrinkles her nose and shakes her head no).

Pham came to Buffalo from Vietnam in 1987 to join relatives. He met his wife on a trip home to Vietnam. They have two children and a third on the way.

Language difficulties aside, they feel at home here. "I like the cold weather," Pham says. "I have friends who moved to Atlanta and California. Too hot for me there!"

The store is a tribute to diversity. You can puzzle your way among African vegetables and Japanese condiments. Nigerian-style pounded yam, anyone?

The ethnic smorgasbord attracts gourmands from the nearby University at Buffalo, which boasts a big international community. Medical student Po Lam, a resident in urology whose parents are from Vietnam, lives in Kenmore but frequently visits An Chau after seeing patients.

"There's an Asian store on Sheridan, but this one has more Southeast Asian food," he says.

Could there be light at the end of Bailey's economic tunnel? A few other signs offer hope. Across LaSalle, also sporting neon signs, is Bailey Fish and Seafood Grill, which sells fresh fish and takeout meals. A block or two away is the second 99 Fastfood, a Vietnamese restaurant that has been a hit across from City Hall.

Tim Wanamaker, head of the Mayor's Office for Strategic Planning, has noticed the stirrings of new life on the strip.

"It's very similar to Jefferson Avenue, but we've been doing more with Jefferson," he says. "Bailey hasn't received the same amount of attention. We're starting to take a look at it now."

The rest of us, too, should sit up and take notice.

Wake up and smell the pickled mudfish.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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