Photo by Chris Casella

Palate Passport

There’s an old saying that if you go to an ethnic restaurant and there are people of that ethnicity getting their meal on, then it’s going to be a good-to-go, authentic experience.

As in, if you’re not Japanese and head into an unknown Japanese restaurant and no one at the tables looks like you, get ready for transcendence.

So, it would stand to reason that food served in the markets that sell the actual ingredients to make said dishes would be down for deliciousness as well.

For those of you who have been watching re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard for the past few years, the United States has entered a new day of world cuisines and Columbus is leading the Rust Belt charge. There is an interesting dynamic at play in the capital city, as we are often name-checked as a test market for the most American of fast food fare – hello McRib – in addition to welcoming a growing roster of not-from-’round-here menu items.

As African, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern joints open to serve our immigrant population, more and more curious cats are opting for a night of new flavor profiles, instead of the tired, tried, and true. The most oft asked question, because we Americans are obsessed with keeping it real, is “So, is it authentic?”

In the search for authenticity, sometimes adventurers get tripped up by the shoelaces of ethnocentricity – entering a Thai market, for example, can be a mystifying sensory wave of new smells, sights, language, and textures. If eaters are willing to suspend perspective and dive into the pool of new food experiences, the market crawl is worth it.

One of the best restaurants tucked into a grocery store like a toy in a Cracker Jack box is Westgate Thai. Drive west on Sullivant through the Bottoms and look for the bright yellow sign. Wind through the aisles of the intriguingly foreign (solar-dried bananas) and comfortably familiar (huge tins of Ovaltine) to find the small, family-run meal spot.

The wall is papered with pictures of the menu items and the freezer sings a high-pitched song. “How ya like Tweety?” joked Gary Smith, who along with his wife Mali, runs the place.

Over the course of the five years Westgate Thai has been open, Gary guessed their business has grown by three to four hundred percent as Columbus has welcomed more immigrants, as well as welcoming new tastes to its palate.

Mali brings the menu to life, having learned the recipes from her grandmother. The couple’s daughter-in-law, Kathie, takes the few steps between the kitchen and the tables, balancing large platters of pad Thai and plates of spring rolls.

Everything is made from scratch, from the sauces to the sweet rice dessert.

“There’s no big vats of stuff back there,” Gary said. “When you order it, we make it.” Making food to-order also allows the diner to pick his or her own heat level. “We go from 1-13,” he explained. “Anything above five is like eating a lit match; 13 is suicidal.”

Gary also offered a couple tips for those who imbibe in the heat: Don’t brush your teeth after eating spicy foods: the toothpaste reactivates the heat and it also makes you sick.

“Also, don’t kiss your baby for two hours after eating – I see parents do this all the time and the baby is crying and they don’t know why.”

Jump in the car and tour a whole world of flavors right in the backyard of the 614. Here’s a quartet to get you started:

Westgate Thai
Thai food and groceries
3201 Sullivant Ave.
(614) 725-5660

Khyber Restaurant
Pakastani foods and halal meats
425 Industrial Mile Rd.
(614) 275-2022

Estilo Brazil
Brazilian food
and groceries
4738 Cleveland Ave.
(614) 269-8990

Awash Enjera
Ethiopian food and market
1403 S Hamilton Rd.
(614) 237-4533