Isabela Asian Market brings back memories of childhood flavors. I think of my friend, Clare and her family gatherings in my San Francisco Bay area neighborhood with endless bites of lumpia and pancit — Filipino egg rolls and fried rice noodles. At this bright and neatly kept store, I find the rice noodles, oyster sauce, and bitter melon my father cooked with.
On this day, walking into market on 24th Street West in Billings, nostalgia of yesteryear’s deliciousness came fondly back. Then, to walk in, and smell the caramelized aromas of pork with soy sauce, paprika and garlic from homemade longganisa from owner Mercy Vannette’s lunch, I felt as though I had come home.
Upon entering, I spied bags of my favorite sweet glutinous rice. In the next aisle, I felt as though I was ten years old again as I found shrimp chips, egg roll cookies, and mochi treats. I discovered cans of coconut milk and cream that enrich my curries, and the sauces that flavor my stir-fries. In the freezer cases along the wall, siu mai (dumplings) and wonton shells were readied for the making. By the front window, another cooler brimmed with frozen seafood with selections such as milk and parrot fish. In the cold case, long beans, green eggplants and enoki mushrooms reminded me of ingredients beyond our Big Sky.
Neresa Huffman, a regular customer, said, “It makes me happy just looking at this food. It reminds me of when I was in the Philippines.”
Vannette opened Isabela Asian Market in April of last year, right after the COVID Pandemic shut down. When talking to her, I sensed a strong spiritual core. “If you are a hard worker and you include God in your business, you will be blessed,” she said. This faith led her to open her market during a challenging time, and in her life, led her to safety and new possibilities.
Isabela, the second largest province in the Philippines, is where Vannette grew up. At 23 years old, she moved to Kuwait to work as a nanny for a wealthy family. In August of 1990, when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, Vannette was with her employer and family at their vacation home in France, protected from danger.
From a co-worker, Vannette learned of the “Sweetheart,” a magazine directed at ranchers in search of companionship. Here she met her future husband, Bruce. They corresponded for a year, “I was looking for a good man that was thoughtful and had a sense of humor. He sent me a letter every day. He told me everything under the sun about his life.”
The two married in April of 1999 and she began her new life in Forsyth, Montana. Of her first impressions of Big Sky Country, “I saw a lot of cows and no people.” Her dismay quickly turned to determination, empowering her to make a home for herself. Soon pregnant, she worked harder, taking on several jobs: produce manager in the local IGA, and waitressing at a Chinese restaurant.
In 2008, Vannette and her husband Bruce started selling Asian products out of a 20-foot trailer. The business is named Isabela Pinay Asian Food, with pinay relating to the female inhabitants of the Philippines. The trailer traveled from Billings to North Dakota, through Williston, Dickinson, and Minot.
She had always dreamed of having a storefront. When the Sears store in Billings closed, “I bought the shelving and stored it in my backyard,” not knowing when they would find a physical space.
Isabela Asian Market began with a Filipino product focus, and has expanded to other Asian foods. Vannette said of the products she brings in, “It is all about what people need. I have to provide what people want. I order special items because I love my customers.”
“I have had requests for lotus leaves and betel nuts,” she shared of more unusual items. “My most popular items are soy sauce, sweet chili sauce for egg rolls, and fish sauce.”
With faith and hard work, Vannette is bringing Asian flavors to Big Sky country.
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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