The Dan Brown who runs the Somerset Asian Market is not the same Dan Brown who wrote "The Da Vinci Code," a novel about carefully hidden secrets of great magnitude.
However, this Dan Brown does oversee one of Pulaski's best hidden secrets -- or at least, perhaps, under-the-radar gems -- that's certainly of great magnitude of interest for those interested in Pan-Asian foods.
"People come in here for the first time every day," said Brown, when asked whether he finds people who didn't know the store was there on the south end of the Tradewind Shopping Center on U.S. 27, where it first opened about two years ago.
Nevertheless, "We have a really good customer base," he added. "... We're adding about four to five customers a day."
Brown has been in Somerset for about 10 years now with his wife Maricel, who also helps run the store. Brown has family in this area, parents John and Shirley Gilbreath, but had been living in Oahu, Hawaii, for 20 years, where he gained a full appreciation for Asian flavors.
"Hawaii is kind of a melting pot for Asian Culture," he said. "So I've been eating Chinese and Vietnamese and Thai and Korean and everything in between for so long, and there's really nothing like that in Somerset."
Coming back to the mainland was a practical idea -- with one child born and one on the way and milk going for $6 a gallon in Hawaii, "compared to a dollar at Wal-Mart," he noted -- but keeping up that Asian-heavy diet was not.
"We got tired of having to drive to Lexington for groceries," said Brown. "By the time you drive up there, you have to go to three or four different stores to find a good ethnic blend. Some of the stores in Lexington are kind of specialized into different ethnicities, whereas we need something that's more generalized."
And so the Somerset Asian Market was born, to fill that niche and provide others in the area with a convenient place to go to find unique products and quality proteins and vegetables.
"I missed the diversity," said Brown. "Diversity is important not just in your culture, but in your diet as well. We do a lot of dishes with fresh vegetables. Any kind of dish you can create with different different vegetables with a different flavor profile gives you more variety, instead of mashed potatoes and creamed corn every night. Variety is very important for me."
And the Asian Market has variety, all right: "We have ramen noodles from seven different countries," Brown declared proudly, everywhere from Japan to Thailand, the Philippines to Cambodia.
"Then we've kind of developed and specialized ourselves as people have come in looking for different things," he said.
Notably, that includes a lot of seafood, such as sushi-grade tuna, salmon, eel, and numerous other options.
"We keep it frozen from the time we get it until it gets here; that's actually the freshest way to get it," said Brown. "Almost all fish that you get, even if it's fresh, has been frozen at some point. What you'll run into is, they'll take it from the freezer in the back, move it over to a cooler, and let it thaw, and then put it on the shelf so you don't know with what you're buying how long it's been in that cooler. I tend to prefer it frozen when I get it. I keep it frozen; when you take it home, you keep it frozen until you're ready to eat it. To me, that's about as fresh a product as you can get, especially when you're dealing with sushi-grade stuff where you're going to eat it raw. You don't want to take any chances with quality."
In addition to the meats and vegetables (you can get things like shredded or grated coconut, banana leaves, and sweet corn), the shelves are stocked full of interesting bottles, packages and wrappers, with between 3,500 and 4,000 different products overall. Among them are snacks from four or five different countries and the best-selling sauces for each Asian nation -- which is a lot.
"We have about 12 or 13 different soy sauces out there, out of the 40 or 50 you can possibly get," said Brown, noting the difficulty of keeping an exhaustive stock of Asian ingredients. Still, they're more than ready to hook you up with whatever you need for the dish you have in mind.
"There are two types of customers," said Brown. "You have one customer that may have children, or they will love the culture, and they'll kind of hang out in the first two aisles with the brightly-colored candies and the noodles from the seven different countries, and of course we have Ramune (soft drinks), which are one of the most popular drinks there are. And then we have our customers that really have an affection for Asian food. They'll come in with recipes looking for sweet soy sauce, thick soy sauce, black soy sauce, thin soy sauce. Of the 13 we have, about six or seven (soy sauces) are different types of sweetness or color. We have those types of customers who want more Asian vegetables to cook meals with."
Overall, the Asian Market is a friendly place. Brown likes to greet people with a bowl of Asian candies as samples to "break the ice a little bit" or perhaps a best-selling Ube cracker from the Philippines. It's all part of taking the Asian Market -- open 12 p.m.-9 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. on Saturday, and 1 p.m.-9 p.m. on Sunday --from being a hidden gem in Somerset to a regular shopping spot for local people.
"A lot of times when people first come in and see all the bright candies and noodles, their eyes will be (wide)," he said, "and later on, they'll come back with a grocery list."