The caller to Linda’s Tropical Fruits was desperate. But shop owner Linda Nguyen had to lay down some guidelines before she could help.

“Please come in the morning as soon as the shipment arrives,” she instructed. “I cannot stand the smell of noni fruit.”

Unlike most produce in Nguyen’s jewel box of a fruit shop on Bellaire Boulevard, noni doesn’t grow in Nguyen’s native Vietnam. But in the four years since she has been in business, Nguyen has become expert at sourcing and handling even the most esoteric produce. In Hawaii, where noni grows, islanders traditionally use it to reduce inflammation. In Houston, some use the fruit to ease the effects of chemotherapy.

Nguyen is glad to accommodate.

“I’ve always had a passion for fruit,” she says. “My favorites are soursop, which has the flavor of pineapple and coconut, and orange-sorbet mango – sweet and creamy, with a hint of citrus.” But fresh fruit, she says, delivers more than refreshment. It can heal.

The roots of Nguyen’s devotion to fruit grew from her childhood on a farm in South Vietnam. The family ate what they grew, and Nguyen recalls the orchards as a paradise of yellow dragon fruit, mangosteen, star apple and dozens of other fruits.

Like everyone else in her community, she ended up extremely picky. Was the mango the same gold hue on the inside as on the outside? Did the rambutan have the right mix of tartness and sugar?

When Nguyen was 7, her family moved to California. She felt at home around the glorious profusion of fruits there, so similar to the farm.  Yet the American fruits themselves were different. So every time Nguyen found a store selling mangosteen or fresh lychee, along with the mouth-watering flavors, she savored the memories they brought.

Linda & jackfruit

As she got older, she began to pay attention to the health benefits of fresh produce – and, finally, to the emotional sustenance a hard-to-find fruit brought people like herself, who’d left tropical childhoods behind.

Thus when Nguyen’s husband Tai expanded his business to Houston, it seemed natural to put her love of fruit to work. In California, Nguyen had been an Allstate insurance agent. In Houston, she studied the tropical fruit-loving market – including the country’s second-largest Vietnamese population and thriving Latin American and African communities – and started a business supplying them.

More than fruit alone, Nguyen said, these Houstonians long for specific experiences attached to them. They want noni when they’re sick, bitter melon to manage their blood sugar, hard-to-store soursops that taste fresh from the tree. And while some of these can be found at H Mart, H-E-B and other big stores, many foreign-born people say they don’t taste quite right. Bought in bulk, some are refrigerated too long or picked too green. Others are too fragile or too fleetingly available for big stores to bother with.

Nguyen ships her fruits in small batches, scouring a network of growers to grab top produce in season. To intercept these fruits, her customers rely on word of mouth or Nguyen’s social media posts. Then they hurry.

“Sorry, lychees are sold out,” an employee informed a caller while manning the cash register. “Call tomorrow. I don’t know how much they’ll be – depends on the shipment.”

“I’ve been stalking the sour sops for months on Instagram,” a customer tells him excitedly when he gets off the phone. “I came right in when I saw them.”

Other customers, though, just come to explore. No bigger than a studio apartment, the shop in the International Management District brims with sense pleasures – the syrupy smell of mango, the funk of fresh durian; the longing strains of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in the air; and a small, meticulous array of fruit delicacies: dehydrated fruit-soup packets, individually packaged sour sop candies, and $20 artisanal fish sauce, packed in a box like fine bourbon for the Lunar New Year.

Nguyen also offers several ways to enjoy her fresh fruit.  Across from bins of jack fruit and star apples, two Spanish-speaking employees stand at the ready to whip up desserts such as Linda’s Favorite, a parfait of fruit puree, chocolate sauce, sorbet, fresh mangoes and kiwis. But it’s two women quietly working at the back who captivate many clients from tropical fruit country.

“See how they cut up the jack fruit, so it doesn’t get messy?” said a shopper named Michelle, who grew up in Nigeria with mango trees in her yard. “You don’t see that at H-E-B.”

Nguyen laughs when she hears this. “It’s true,” she said.

Along with offering whole fruit, she explained, she always ensures that some jackfruits, sour sops and pomelos –notoriously sticky or hard to peel — are pre-cut for snacking.

“In our younger days, Vietnamese parents do love to cut up our fruit,” Nguyen said. “We’re a little spoiled. So we like to cut them up for customers, the way our parents did for us.”

Linda’s Tropical Fruits
10600 Bellaire Blvd. #114
Open 10 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Facebook: Linda’s Tropical Fruits

— By Claudia Kolker