As Columbus is becoming more and more known beyond its borders for our kaleidoscopic food scene, local eaters are becoming more and more wiling to go outside of their comfort zone. Whether this means a goat stew steaming with unfamiliar aromas, or a bun stuffed with meat and sauerkraut, or a mash of yellow peas, everything is new to someone.
From the Germans to the Irish, the Ecuadorians to the Mexicans, the Ethiopians to the Somalis, every new influx of immigrants brings along with them the foodways of their homeland. New ingredients and flavors, communal tables versus two tops, eating utensils (or none at all) every bite adds to the culture, culture, culture of the Capital City.
Indeed, eating at a restaurant representing a culture other than one’s own in usually the closest people get to being enveloped in another’s world. This seemingly ordinary act actually has repercussions beyond just a meal. In a city that is rapidly becoming more and more global each day, sharing a meal can engender friendship and empathy and go a long way to erasing the concept of “the other.”
Even in the marbled D.C. halls of power, bread-breaking – be it Parker rolls, a baguette, injera, coco bread, naan, or sourdough – is a form of diplomacy – gastrodiplomacy. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was Secretary of State, she created a team of chef ambassadors to design meals for visiting diplomats and to travel around the globe to research food traditions, as well as whip up tastings of “American” food to aid in international relations.
In recent years, besides the U.S., countries such as Thailand, South Korea, and Peru have launched their own culinary programs to promote cross-cultural exchange. Though this seems like a new-fangled, touchy-feely, idea, it actually reaches back to Roman times when peace talks were held around a table weighted down with sumptuous food offerings.
While that’s a macro look at the act of sharing a meal, zooming into the micro, local, level, it’s neighbors meeting neighbors, pulling chairs up to the table, and having a bite.
1802 West Henderson Road
Tucked back behind a stock sports bar off Henderson Road is Restaurant Silla, one of the better Korean joints in the city. Like many restaurants of its kind, Silla boasts quite a large menu. My advice: go for something you haven’t heard of before. My go-to is the dak dong jib, otherwise known as stir-fried chicken gizzards. The marinated gizzards are neither crunchy nor soft, piled up with onions, garlic, and jalapeños. They’re impossibly springy, each one another oily snap of unmistakable poultry goodness. Accompanied by a dipping dish of sesame oil and black pepper, you snatch, dip, and pop two or three in rapid succession, then you sip some ice cold Korean OB beer. It’s quite a large portion, so if you can find another adventurous soul to accompany you, it’s a good dish to split. Not that I haven’t taken an entire bowl down by myself. But it’s not a competition.
1265 Morse Road (inside Sagara International Market)
I have a deep affection for eateries where I can watch my food being made. Sitting at the counter at Momo Ghar, you not only get a full view of the kitchen, but you’ve got a front row seat to the dumpling exhibition. You’ll want to order up the jhol momo. Assembled before your eyes, these Nepali dumplings get steamed through and served swimming in a pool of perfectly seasoned and spiced jhol achar, a traditional Nepali soup. The momo come in several varieties (veggie, chicken, etc.), but no matter the filler, they come out springy and soft and soak up just enough of the jhol to carry the flavor through. (Not that you shouldn’t be taking spoonfuls of soup down in between bites. You should.) Hotheads like me can ask for extra spicy, but the standard order left me satisfied even without the lingering burn. Eight dumplings for eight bucks. It’s a steal.
72 East Lynn Street
This back alley oasis may be a secret to the suburban set, but the downtown lunch crowd is wise. Si Señor is famous for its Peruvian-style sanguches (sandwiches)– the chicharron Peruano (pork shoulder and pickled red onions) and Jumping Beef (sliced Angus beef, manchego, avocado mayo) are fan favorites. Personally, I go for the Peruvian empanadas. Nearly every culture has some version of pocket food, but the Peruvian filling features ground beef, caramelized onions, raisins, and a bit of hard-boiled egg. The seasoning has a distinctive savory-sweet vibe. Si Señor tops its empanadas with a bit of powdered sugar, lime juice, and homemade hot sauce. For under four bucks, you can take down one of these seven-inch sensations and wonder how you ever allowed yourself to eat a Hot Pocket. If you want in, be advised: hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
While researching Khyber Restaurant on Industrial Mile, I received recommendations from those who know and love this restaurant. When I arrived, I discovered that apparently most of those in the know of this Pakistani gem order dishes to go– the restaurant was empty. However, the kitchen was full of life, delicious smells and, through the window behind the register counter, I could see fresh naan being prepared. I decided to take a seat. My host and extremely kind server patiently explained Biriyani one of Pakistan’s most recognizable dishes, and it did not disappoint (I chose the recommended goat version.) My favorite item was surprising. Mutton Hallem– it has an appearance similar to baba ghanoush, but tastes close to the curries I grew up eating. I scooped it out of a bowl with torn off pieces of fresh naan and it was phenomenal. I only tried three dishes while at this Halal favorite, but if the rest of the bright and extensive menu is even a fraction as tasty as my meal, I will be ordering carry-out very soon.
Spagio European and Pacific Rim Cuisine
1295 Grandview Ave.
Spagio European and Pacific Rim Cuisine nestles in a niche area of Grandview Heights is not what one may associate with German cuisine at first glance. Chef and owner Hubert Seifert and wife Helga are both German-born, and during the fall and winter months, you will find what is considered Germany’s national dish on the menu: sauerbraten. The name of the dish is literally comprised of German words: sauer or sour and brauten meaning roasted meat. The roast is marinated for two to three weeks in a brine of red wine, beet syrup, vinegar, cloves, juniper berries, bay leaves and more, tenderizing the meat with a rich flavor. Once removing the protein– Chef Seifert uses choice eye of round for its marbling, adding additional depth and flavor– the liquid is reserved then for braising, durig which the meat is slowly braised until tender, and ultimately develops into a sauce that pulls the dish together. The methods by which it is marinated and prepared vary depending on the region. Chef Seifert is from the Rhineland in Western Germany and serves sauerbraten with the traditional side dishes of this area: lingonberries and baked apples. At Spagio, one can find various delicious European specialties as well as neighborhood favorites year round, some of which have been staples of this Columbus food mecca for over 30 years. However, when the leaves start to change this autumn, be sure to go sure to go to Spagio for a truly authentic German meal of sauerbraten, made with love and nostalgia from a truly generous and kind German Chef.
3277 Refugee Rd.
If you’re looking for authentic Thai Cuisine look no further than Bangkok Kitchen and Grocery. A rustic and unassuming place full of families, booths and laminated wooden menus with images of various specialties on their expansive menu, it welcomes all. This is where you’ll find one of the most authentic Tom Yum Gai soups in Columbus, Ohio. Served in an enormous silver pot which sat on a small cylinder heated with candles and making it a traditional “fire pot” and keeping it warm, Bangkok Kitchen did not disappoint. Tom Yum Gai is a spicy hot and sour soup flavored with lime leaves, cilantro, lemongrass, galanga mushrooms and tender skinless chunks of chicken (or shrimp if you prefer, although I am sure you could ask for meatless as well.) This single order alone could have fed a party of 4 or more. Even more surprising was that it did not lose its flavor in Bangkok Kitchen’s option to deliver guests with both quantity and quality. Try this Thai specialty for yourself at Bangkok Grocery and Kitchen, and be sure to order the fire pot: you won’t be disappointed.
791 E. Long St.
Searching for a great authentic Mexican taco, I went to my favorite taco truck in the city: Los Potosinos’. A huge charcoal grill sits directly outside the food truck on 791 East Long Street in the King Lincoln District. Juicy roasted chicken is lovingly prepared by San Luis Potosi native owner and operator (Potosinos means people who hail from this specific region in Mexico), Lidia Labra and/or her associate, a kind gentleman named Bruce. I’ve come for Labra’s specialty: Pollo al Carbon. I’m not her only fan by far, as she has been recognized locally by the community, garnering praise from Serious Eats culinary director and James Beard award winner Kenji Loz-Alt who made a stop while in Columbus, and raved over her specialty. Translated to grilled chicken, it seems at first glance a very simple and plain dish. The chicken is served in whole pieces, along with house-made refried beans, salad, warm corn tortillas and salsa if you choose. The tacos are meant to be put together yourself, and as I ripped apart the house specialty with abandon I could see why. Los Potosinos is worth the trip, the line is short, or you may call ahead to pick up an order. Los Potosinos is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. closed on Sunday and one can order ahead by calling 614-877-6895.
47 N. Pearl St.
I visited El Arepazo’s original location at 47 North Pearl Street specializing in authentic, self-described “Pan-Latin” dishes. Owners Carlos and Carolina Gutierrez’, (born of Venezuelan and Columbian roots, respectively) take great care in developing their dishes. The first item featured on their menu is considered the national dish of Venezuela: Pabellon Criollo, a colorful and delicious dish featuring rice, stewed black beans and tender shredded beef. At El Arepazo they feature pabellón con barandas (baranda is Spanish for guard rail), served with tajadas (fried plantains). It garnered the name as long plantain slices placed on the sides are whimsically considered to keep the generous mountain of food from falling off one’s plate. It’s then topped with bright yellow arepitas, rounded miniature versions of arepas. Another extremely popular indigenous food found primarily in Venezuela and Colombia, arepas increased in popularity in Columbus by Carlos’ Venezuelan family’ booth during a Latin Food festival. They pay tribute to their respective roots not only with the very name of their restaurant, but with this the additions of plantains and arepitas to this classic Venezuelan dish.
Olentangy Plaza at 2831 Olentangy River Rd
Everyone has an ingredient breaking point; mine is raw onion. For some, it’s raisins and if that’s the case, the Kabuli Palaw at Café Kabul is not for you. The national dish of Afghanistan, the lamb and rice meal is your basic brown and white, but shredded carrots pop with color and scattered, plump raisins add sweet interest. Many cultures have their own take on the universal rice and Afghanistan is no different – the rice is basmati and cooked in chicken broth for optimal flavor. The lamb is presented in tender chunks, the gaminess that sometimes plagues lamb has been cooked away and it plays nicely with the mild spice that highlights the meal. Vegetarian in the party? Buranee Bonjon features thick slices of eggplant topped with a yogurt sauce that is easily scooped up with the huge disc of Afghan bread, warm from the oven.
1032 Mount Vernon Ave.
While people love the po’ boys and etoufee dishes, it’s Chef Henry Butcher’s Bayou-inspired breakfasts that are the stuff of early morning cravings. It’s hard to decide between the Creole Eggs Benedict and the Eggs Basin Street, so take a friend. The Creole Benedict leaves the classic preparation in the dust: Two perfectly poached eggs, sauced with Béarnaise, served over tasso ham – a spicy Cajun replacement for the dreary Canadian bacon – piled on homemade biscuits that kiss up to a lake of grits is a sure way to start the day right. On the other hand, the Eggs Basin Street feature the same expertly poached eggs, but flips the script to add andouille sausage, red beans, and rice patties instead of biscuits. Named after a street in New Orleans that once was a strip of chic mansions before becoming part of the Storyville red light district, the dish is similar to its namesake – the elegant, silky eggs jacked up with spicy sausage and rice. Step up to the counter, place your order and take a seat. Listen to the music of Chef Butcher’s singing, the call-and-response ordering, with a backbeat of sizzling eggs and the clink of the spatulas flipping pancakes.
77 E. Gay St.
“Old clothes” isn’t the most appetizing name for a dish, but the story is a romantic one. Ropa Vieja, the national dish of Cuba, is said to have originated when a man, in despair because he did not have enough food to feed his family, ripped up some old clothes and, because of the strength of his love, stewed the shreds into a filling and flavorful meal for his loved ones. While a touching bit of folklore, Ropa Vieja is not a stewed thicket of laundry; it is traditionally flank steak cooked down for hours until tender. At Plantain Café the dish is made with brisket, a fattier cut of beef that when cooked for a long time, braises in its own salty juices with the result a juicy, tasty, beefy treat. For an island vibe on a chilly day, the long and thin Cuban outpost with its pictures of old world Havana is welcoming. When ordering, go for the platter version instead of the sandwich. Sandwiches are great and all that, but the bun gets in the way of getting the full flavor affect. Colorful with peppers and nestled up with plantains, black beans, and rice, the Ropa Veija is like eating in Havana without having to deal with all the travel hassles. Bonus tip: The plantain chips are on point, the lime and garlic dipping sauce zesty.
730 S. High St.
Is Czechoslovakian “fusion” a thing? If not, don’t tell the folks at Kolache Republic. Dedicated to sweet and savory fillings surrounded by pillows of oven fresh bread and old world charm, this German Village eatery exceeds expectations. Kolaches are oddly common in Texas and other unlikely enclaves of Czech immigrants and their descendants. The open kitchen and simple concept capture a credo lost on many upstarts — doing one thing better than anyone else. Play it safe with something sweet, perhaps a traditional cheese, blueberry or lemon curd. Or, skip the treat and go for a meaty bierock, with seasoned beef, sauerkraut, and onions. The menu changes often, so Twitter and Facebook are still the best way to keep up with the daily lunch specials. From complex Cubans and Reubens to hearty Sloppy Joes and Chipotle Cheeseburgers, if you can bake it in a bun, Kolache Republic has probably tried it — and so should you.
378 S. Grener Ave.
Looking for authentic ethnic fare just outside the outerbelt, that hasn’t been overrun by fickle food tourists? Los Galapagos is waiting for you on the far west side, south of Broad. This Ecuadorian grocery/restaurant has all of the hallmarks of a classic Columbus culinary destination. Service is simple and sincere, everything is made to order, and you won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else in town. Start with the Chaulafan, a fried rice dish some say was originally inspired by Chinese immigrants to Ecuador. Imagine chicken, ham, and shrimp, peas, carrots, and onion — but with decidedly Latin American seasonings. If slow cooked pork is your vice, the Puerco al Horno may become your new guilty pleasure. You may just forget about your favorite carnitas joint. Their portions and plantains are enormous. Share or expect leftovers. But be sure to save room for a silky smooth Guanabana “milk shake”, a sweet and tangy fruit foreign to most gringos.
1111 S. Hamilton Rd.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, I was raised on the Ethiopian restaurants of Washington, D.C. It was something dearly missed when I first moved to Columbus for college. Well, time and immigration changed all that and now there are a cornucopia of Ethiopian joints to chose from, mostly located in or near Whitehall. Of them all, Lalibela is a favorite and not just because of the food. The space is obviously a hang out for the Ethiopian/Eritrean community, with pool tables, a blue-lit bar, and small groups chatting in the busy parking lot. While the menu is chock full of long-simmered meats, Lalibela gives equal love to vegetarian/vegan options. The Beyaynetu platter is a feast of veggie glory – collard greens, red lentils, cabbage, a salad, and my favorite, shiro. Shiro is a mash of yellow ground peas that have been simmered with onions and tomatoes. There is just something so comforting about it. All is served on a disc of enjera bread, along with some more rolled bread. The sour-ish bubbly bread serves to not only soak up all the sauces so you don’t miss a drop, but is also used as utensil. Rip off a piece, cup it in your fingers, and scoop up the food. It’s spongy texture takes a moment to get used to, but pretty soon you’ll be scooping like a pro.
Transporting landlocked Midwesterners to the vibrant Pacific ocean is no easy task, yet Aloha Eatery manages to do it in flavor and in style. With its sandy color scheme, tiki wrap, grass-skirted counter, and surfboard menu, all that’s needed is a wave-echoing conch shell with each order. At Aloha, ordering a coupla of sliders is one way to surf the flavors of the 50th state. Served on little buttery lotus buns, the sliders pack a ton of flavor onto a small bit of bready real estate. The wine-soaked pork belly version is addictive, the siracha aoili and bits of fresh cilantro adding heat and relief, respectively. The Pineapple bun gets the same siracha kiss, which is a perfect foil to the salty grilled Spam – you can get it with chicken, but Spam is more authentic. The Hawaiians took to Spam like nobody’s business during WWII when the GIs showed up, loaded down with cans of the spicy ham. Shredded pineapple picks up the hint of sweetness in the bun and in just a few bites, you’ve basically hit all the flavor hot spots. The truck’s facebook page is updated constantly with its stops.
Raw tuna is so prevalent on menus these days that it’s become kinda boring. Enter Hai Poké. This small traveling joint reminds us of why we love raw tuna to being with – it’s smooth, slightly sweet with the subtle fullness of fat – the perfect ocean wave of luxury. Now take that fresh tuna and chop into tiny cubes and marinate it in a mix of soy and sesame and pile it atop an ice cream scoop of shiny, slightly sweet, white rice. Add in pickled cucumbers, briny seaweed, scallions and a wink of fresh lime and you have the basic Hai Poké bowl. A fan of wonton chips comes along on the date to offer some crunch. Owners Mico Cordero and Nile Woodson are, like, the nicest duo on Earth. The poké is the result of a never-forgotten meal Woodson had as a child while on vacation in Hawaii. Don’t call it Hawaiian food though; the two prefer to refer to their offerings as “Island Food” so, as they grow, they cull inspiration from islands all over the world. Follow them on facebook for whereabouts details.
Ena’s Caribbean Café
2444 Cleveland Ave.
The bold green awning at the corner of Cleveland and Myrtle avenues might as well be a portal to another land — one of sun, sand, and reggae beats. Inside you’ll find mostly by people waiting for take-out orders – a steady stream of families, couples, hungry singletons, and groups of friends walk smiling by with bags in hand. Order at the counter and take a seat, or lean against one of the walls festooned with reggae band posters and the bold Jamaican flag. My nosh of choice is the Oxtails. Each order comes in a take-away clamshell, joined by two sides of your choice – including mac & cheese, rice and peas (beans), cabbage, cornbread, greens, potato salad, and plantains. Coco bread, a slightly sweet, airy bread is offered as well and is perfect for sopping up sauce. The oxtail stew has a deep, earthy aroma with each slice looking like a dark rosette, with blooms of meat surrounding the star-like bone — a bit difficult to navigate, but fun for those who like to get their fingers dirty. Full of fatty flavor and slick gelatin, the meat is rich and flavorful from all that braising. Served in brown sauce with soft butter beans, sweet bell peppers and crunchy onions, this is comfort food, Jamaican-style!
2171 E. Dublin-Granville Rd.
For those whose only reference point for kebabs is the sketchy spot in a rundown, shopping mall food court, take note. Jeddo is everything that kebabs shops should be. Huge platters of Persian fare big enough to share, but so succulent you won’t want to. Recently relocated from Cleveland Avenue to Dublin-Granville Road in the culturally rich melting pot of the Northeast side, it’s well worth the trip for those downtown and out in the suburbs. Try the Zereshk Polo Ba Morgh, a half-chicken, seasoned and oven-baked to crispy perfection outside, yet tender to the bone inside. Maybe the Makhsous, marinated lamb and beef tenderloins, is more your speed. Can’t decide? Order the Barg Mix for a bit of both. All platters are served with spiced rice, Jeddo-style salad, or half of each. For a little bit more, you can substitute for Shirazi Salad, Tabouleh, Hummus, or Baba Ganoush.
2263 Morse Rd.
When I visit African Paradise, I am always greeted with smiles and kindness not only by workers, but diners as well. While I am waiting for my friends, I love to sip on the cardamom-spiked tea and watch the room – laugher and the musical Somali language float through the air, mingling with savory kitchen smells of spices from far-off lands. Meals can be served community style, with tables of friends reaching over each other to grab bites, with forks, with fingers, spoons. All meals are served with mango juice and bananas, given the tropical climate of Somali, these are plentiful and a daily part of traditional cuisine. The table becomes crowded with a lovely suugo, a brothy dip of predominately tomatoes and onion, served with chapatti, warm golden triangles of bread to be ripped apart, twisted, dipped and devoured. My favorite dish is the hilib ari with rice; probably one of the best goat dishes in a city that is slowly embracing this “new” protein. The goat is roasted and tender as can be, the little gaminess that nudged my taste buds at first disappeared after a couple more bites. And the rice, the rice is magical… aromatic, each little grain tasty with lusty spice.
561 S. Hamilton Rd.
Vietnamese restaurants can often be forbidding, with a lack of written or spoken English and sometimes unclear ordering and payment customs. Indochine clears all of these hurdles by simultaneously: 1) remaining proudly authentic. 2) serving food made in-house with fresh ingredients and, 3) being instantly accessible. There are a few details about Indochine that endear it to me on a personal level. I like that they embrace the tradition of Vietnamese restaurants and puns by wearing “What the Pho?” shirts. I like that they remember regular customers’ orders and details about their lives. But most of all, I love their version of bun thit nuong, one of our nation’s finest. No. 23 if you’re interested.
Written by V.R. Bryant, Kim Leddy, J.R. McMillan, Landon Proctor, and Maureen Yoshizaki.