Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Strip Mall Surprise

For adventurous eaters, Columbus holds its own when it comes to top-notch food trucks slinging what’s next in curbside cuisine.

But in the waning days of winter, shivering on the sidewalk isn’t the only option for those hungry for something exotic and new. Hiding in plain sight from Westerville to Georgesville are strip mall surprises—unassuming ethnic eateries where the menus are deep and the rent is cheap.

“It’s easy to see strip malls as complete drive-bys,” notes Nick Dekker, local food legend and acclaimed breakfast blogger. “Strip malls offer small spaces with inexpensive rent, so they’re a natural draw for family-owned restaurants. Some of my favorite restaurants over the years are all located in strip malls: Los Guachos off Bethel Road, Huong Vietnamese on Morse, or Fortune Chinese on Olentangy River Road.”

That’s the story behind one of the latest additions to the local food landscape, Hoyo’s Kitchen, tucked away in Columbus Square on the Northeast side. Breathing new life into the spot once held by Solay Bistro, former fans will find the renovations hide a restaurant reinvention—fast casual Somali. Owner and recent OSU grad Abdilahi “A.B.” Hassan wants to share his culinary heritage while borrowing Chipotle’s simplicity. Choose from a wide selection of traditionally prepared entrees and expertly seasoned sides. Play it safe with cubed chicken or beef “suqaar,” or go for the goat—hearty and fork-tender, with heaping helpings of rice, chickpeas, lentils, and a hot cup of Somali ginger tea to bring all of the flavors together.

Right down the same strip is Mi Li Café. It’s everything a Vietnamese lunch counter should be—a limited menu with excellent execution of every item.The pho bo vien is as rich and complex as any in town, but the banh mi thit nuong still steals the show. The culture clash of regional tastes served on a crusty baguette is the culinary convergence of Vietnam’s French colonial history on a bun. Grilled pork and peppery pâté compete with the crunch of cucumbers and carrots in a sandwich that has a fierce following for good reason.

Not far—yet a world away—is Mezze Middle’terranean Cuisine on North Hamilton Road, right on the edge of New Albany and Gahanna. The format is familiar, but the fare is formidable. To suggest you simply select from a list of proteins and build your meal around it is unjust. The Israeli-inspired shawarma is as sumptuous as the grilled tilapia is delicate. Gyro meat and chicken may go equally well wrapped in a pita, but the mujadara is not to be missed—a Lebanese blend of rice and lentils. Baba ghanoug, matbucha, and tabouli complement any choice, but you probably want to leave room for the homemade desserts. Everything is better with baklava.

Papaya Fusion Grill strikes the balance between eastern influences and western customization, with a menu that may offer the most choices per square food of any restaurant in greater Columbus. Stir-fry, soup, or sandwich, you’ll find strange “platefellows” indeed off 161 just east of Sawmill Road. Why not order a tandoori chicken panini or firecracker shrimp po’ boy with a side of drunken lo mein or cup of lemongrass soup? If those decisions are too daunting, stick with the red curry chicken bowl—a spicy sweet blend of coconut milk, bamboo shoots, zucchini, and peppers served with rice—then work your way through the menu the next time.

With arguably the best taco truck scene in the Midwest, it’s easy to overlook places like La Super Torta. But do so at your peril. Just down the road from Hollywood Casino, La Super Torta hits the jackpot. You’ll find all of the food truck favorites there, but the two-fisted tortas are what set it apart. The torta asada comes on a roll roughly the same dimensions as a slightly deflated football, piled with seasoned steak, sliced avocado, lettuce, tomato, and peppers. And whoever thought to smear refried black beans on the lid of a torta deserves a Nobel Prize in Sandwich Craft.

“No longer do you need to be situated along High Street with a huge marketing budget to be a successful eatery,” explains Bryant Miller, Community Manager for Yelp Columbus. “When you’re not afraid to grab a tiny table in the back of an Asian market, you’ll find the best pad thai in the city. That’s why we’re not afraid to go somewhere new—we might just find the best meal we’ve never had.”