By: Angela Qian – Seattle Met

Okay, let’s admit it—for the uninitiated, food shopping in the International District can be intimidating. Mysterious objects float in pickle jars, food labels lack an English translation, and just what on earth are those dangerously spiky red things in the fruit aisle? Luckily, if you need a native to navigate those meandering alleys, Taylor Hoang is just your girl.

Hoang, longtime businesswoman and owner of Pho Cyclo Café and Lavender Jade Catering, is launching Insider’s International District Tours, an idea which arose from frequent queries on where to find the best Asian ingredients. Included in the informal three-hour tour is lunch at Huong Binh Restaurant—a venerable Vietnamese establishment owned by her mother that’s been around since ’93—and more samplings of fruit, pastries, pork buns, and milk tea than is probably healthy. Good thing it’s a walking tour.

Hoang takes visitors through 12 family-owned stores and restaurants, discussing everything from how to navigate a Vietnamese grocery store to her take on the best tofu and soymilk in ID.  The tours focus on the hidden treasures of International District and Chinatown, avoiding big-name establishments like Uwajimaya in favor of little gems like Saigon Bakery, which sells six huge cream puffs for $2.50.

For example, inside the cramped but super-cheap Lam Seafood and Grocery, Hoang gives quick tips on cooking different Asian vegetables, points out her favorite brand of fish sauce, and demonstrates how to eat a mangosteen, popping the top off to reveal the clove of fruit inside.  At Huong Binh, she gives recommendations on which dishes are best and a short primer on Vietnamese cuisine while passing around samplings of pure sugarcane juice with kumquat, light and refreshing and nowhere near cloying.

Consider yourself initiated.

Related: Take a Food Tour of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District