At a boardwalk restaurant called Tatiana, mustached men sit downing bottles of Baltika beer while watching the bikini-clad beachgoers stroll by. If you’re imagining some Russian resort town, think again: this is New York.
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, is only about 15 miles from Manhattan but in style, cuisine, and temperament, it’s thousands of miles away. A trip here or to another ethnic enclave is a great way to exercise your wanderlust without crossing oceans. You can broaden your comfort zone, buy souvenirs and products to cook at home, and sample new dishes. And you can do it affordably at casual, quirky restaurants and in cities you might not expect.
“The way ethnic neighborhoods form has changed,” says Michael Soon Lee, author of Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies and founder of EthnoConnect.com. “People would immigrate through gateway cities of the major shipping lines like San Francisco and New York. Due to the difficulty and cost of transportation, most would stay in those areas for generations.” But with greater mobility and high-speed communications, immigrants are branching out.
In the Twin Cities, the Hmong (a Southeast Asian ethnic minority) have planted roots, as have Indians in Houston and Ethiopians in D.C., where U Street gives off the aromas of spicy lamb stew, injera bread, and brewing coffee. “All it takes is for a few people from the same ethnicity to be treated with kindness, respect, and understanding and then the word of mouth spreads,” says Soon Lee.
That kind of open mind and sense of adventure helps when exploring these communities, which can be a little gritty and less accessible than touristy Little Italys. While some Chinatowns have also become kitschy shells of their former selves, in Vegas, a vibrant community has sprung up around Spring Mountain Road; pull over at KJ Kitchen for fried noodles and Cantonese-style lobster.
Back in New York, the Lower East Side attracts a different sort of immigrant than those documented in its Tenement Museum: people migrating to hip bars and restaurants. Pair cocktails there with vodka shots in Brighton Beach for a rounded-out city perspective.
And try testing your culinary boundaries wherever you travel next, or in your own hometown. In L.A., for instance, we’re highlighting Thai Town, but prominent local Mexican and Korean populations also do their part to serve up authentic ethnic food. Check out our picks of notable, lesser-known ethnic-food neighborhoods, and share your experiences in the comments below.