Late in the evening, the southwest corner of Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive in Arlington sounds like traffic and smells of fresh fruit.

Motorists whizz by and their headlights illuminate 14 cartons of tomatoes, bushels of bananas and tangerines and grapefruit and pears.

Behind seemingly perpetual displays of avocados and apples, garlic and grapes, the owners of Clarendon Natural Foods Inc., have been marketing produce and health foods at the busy intersection for six years.

Between two commercial arteries, the three-room store seems out of place on a corner where neighboring establishments sell brass beds, vacuum cleaners and automobile mufflers.

But the owners of Clarendon Natural Foods are convinced that their location is perfect: in the heart of a bustling, ethnically diverse area. They said that the residents of Arlington have proven to be loyal patrons and persistent teachers, often introducing the owners to exotic foods that they had never heard of.

Recently a Japanese customer asked for a miwa, a tear-shaped, egg-sized fruit that is "deadly sweet," according to Bill Tedder, who works in the store.

"It's really an exotic food," Tedder said. "We're looking for them now."

Tedder sits on a stool in the store's front room, backed by floor-to-ceiling shelves of brewer's yeast, lecithin capsules and garlic pills, and chain-smokes.

He can tell you when strawberries are in season in New Zealand, or why a Texas county called Deaf Smith is famed for its grain.

He learned most of this culinary trivia, he said, from talking to customers. For instance, there is the clementine, a seedless tangerine.

"Deeply sweet, but very small. I didn't know about it until last week myself," Tedder said.

"Lots of stuff the customers ask for I've never heard of," agreed David Hollifield, whose father Leonard left his job working for a chain grocery six years ago to open the store.

When Leonard Hollifield launched the business he didn't know much about health food.

"I knew nothing, I had never been in a health food store," he said. "So I called two distributors and put in a $4,000 order. I just told them to send me three of each thing."

In an area that has drawn large numbers of Indochinese and Hispanic immigrants, as well as diplomatic and military families from around the world, there is a wide market for international and exotic foods, the store's owners said.

In addition to the eggplants and artichokes that glint in passing car headlights at night, the three rooms of Clarendon Natural Foods are stocked with rice flour, shiitake mushrooms, four kinds of tofu (soybean curd), goat's milk fudge and pure coconut oil.

"We have customers from Madagascar, the third largest island in the world," Tedder boasted. "And Israel, Japan, Korea, every South American and Central American country, Ethiopia, Portugal, Italy. We try to have something for everyone."

Tina Mayers of Arlington, busily filling a plastic bag with vegetables, said that she shops at Clarendon Natural Foods "all the time."

"It's the only place that has really pretty fresh vegetables and pickling cucumbers," Mayers explained.

But she doesn't pickle the small, light green "cukes" herself. "I eat them raw. It's an Arabic way to have them. You can't get them anywhere else."

In winter, the produce shelves out front become more sparse and the focus of business moves indoors, where an eclectic collection of organic ingredients, ready-to-eat sprout sandwiches, and herbal soaps line the walls.

One of the store's most popular items is bee pollen, stored in an apothecary jar on the counter.

The crumbly, orange pollen, which resembles bird seed, is good for "energy and allergies," according to Tedder.

Devotees consume a level teaspoonful a day, he said, and "it is nothing unusual for people to come in and buy five pounds."

Not everyone is drawn by such exotica; some come to shop for more mundane products such as dried fruit, pistachio nuts and pasta.

One evening recently, Ali Bathai, 28, poked around the bulk-food area, where dozens of buckets hold fruit and nuts and several kinds of flour.

Bathai said that the fruit had caught his eye as he drove from his job at an Arlington car dealership to his home in the District.

"I'm rather lazy. I don't go out of my way to buy stuff," he said, scooping dried peaches from a bucket on the floor and taking a bag of unprocessed fine bran from the shelf.

At Clarendon Natural Foods, Bathai said, he just buys "whatever my eyes like."