Each time Diana Zambidis visits Lotte Plaza in Ellicott City, she finds something new to experience, and it's not always the food.
It could be listening to the Korean pop music blaring from the loudspeaker, or attempting to translate the specials - printed in Korean - in the store's weekly circular, or discovering exotic foods like salted fish intestines and squid jerky.
"You have to get over the music," Zambidis, of Ellicott City, said with a laugh. "But the food is outstanding. ... It's very reasonable. You can typically walk out of here with four or five bags of groceries for $20."
The lure of fresh produce, low prices, the market-style atmosphere and Asian-themed products has made the Lotte Plaza on U.S. 40 near U.S. 29 a must for many shoppers - and not just members of the Howard County Korean community it was built for in 1999. Other residents have come to appreciate a shopping experience that deviates from the traditional cookie-cutter American supermarkets, even if the labels on some foods lack English subtitles.
But amid the diversity of suburban Howard County, Korean-born customers navigating the narrow aisles bursting with colorfully labeled products from the Far East say Lotte Plaza helps them maintain a connection with their native land.
"It's just like home," said Eun Hee Chang of Ellicott City through a translator, while waiting in one of the checkout lanes that extended back to the frozen-food aisle.
"The prices can be a bit high, but it is worth it having everything here in one place," she added.
From the outside, the 40,000-square-foot Lotte Plaza could double for any chain grocery store. The building once was a Super Fresh - the same tile, and many of the same moldings and fixtures that distinguish one department from another still exist. But with the addition of gigantic tanks filled with live fish, tables stacked with woks, rice cookers and fine china, and a lack of powerhouse American brands - don't expect to find Lean Cuisine in the frozen food section - Lotte Plaza is distinct.
It is also more than just a supermarket. Inside the building are smaller stores, including a food court equipped with wooden tables and chairs that resemble tree trunks, a video store that specializes in Asian movies, a makeup counter, a cellular phone vendor, a travel agency, and lil' thingamajigs, which specializes in smaller gifts. That store is an explosion of Hello Kitty merchandise, pink trinkets, and other "cute items," according to owner Samsung Song.
Store signs are written in Korean with English translations.
"We are a smaller-scale, Asian-themed mall," said Christine Lee, the store's buyer. "We cater to what is most needed.
"People come here for lunch, to meet friends," Lee said. "It's a meeting place. And while they are here they go shopping."
Lotte Plaza is not limited to Ellicott City. There are also stores in Silver Spring, Rockville, and Fairfax, Va. A fifth store is scheduled to open in Germantown next month.
Originally founded as a Korean specialty store, the Ellicott City location evolved into an Asian specialty store, and is consistently one of the busiest in the locally owned chain. The store does a half-million dollars in sales each week, according to Lee. Only Fairfax - with a considerably larger Korean community - does better.
Enter the Ellicott City location at your own risk during the weekend rush, which begins on Thursday. The seven checkout lines extend 30 carts back on the weekend, according to Lee. Sunday afternoons, after services have ended at nearby Korean churches, the store is especially crowded.
"Our cashiers can't go to the bathrooms," Lee said.
On a recent weekday, the store was a little less hectic, and Zambidis was carting around her two children Anastasia, 2, and Alexander, 5. It was her second trip to the plaza in less than a week. Today's mission: restocking fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ah, the produce.
From the moment customers walk into the store, they are bombarded by the whiff of the fresh basil plants and the unmistakable crisp orchard smell of red delicious apples.
"Asian customers tend to eat a lot of produce," Lee said. "We always have to be on our toes. It is one of the best draws to our store."
Zambidis can attest to the freshness factor.
"I've never had to bring something back," she said.
Fish selections are also abundant.
A large bin of blue crabs was crawling with crustaceans. A gigantic fish tank underneath the day's daily fish offerings was filled with assorted live fish for sale. Tilapia - 99 cents a pound - darted from one end of the tank to the other.
The cold prepared food section can be a new experience for the average American pallet, featuring salted fish intestines in a maroon sauce speckled with green vegetation and seasoned squid slices.
Offerings aren't confined to Asian cuisine.