America's Best Neighborhoods for Ethnic Food
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.
Thai Town, Los Angeles
L.A. and Bangkok have more in common than a shared nickname (City of Angels). The SoCal city happens to have the largest Thai population outside of Thailand and is sometimes referred to as Thailand’s “78th province.” After the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965 passed, Thais came in droves to study, many stayed to open businesses, and Thai Town was born. It’s loaded with excellent eating options; the indecisive should hit up Jitlada, a longtime local favorite that specializes in southern Thai cuisine. After, walk off your meal at Thailand Plaza (5321 Hollywood Blvd.; 323-993-9000), a shopping mall that sells Thai grocery items, incense, and knickknacks.
Versailles, New Orleans
There are significant Vietnamese communities in southern California, northern Virginia, and Orlando, FL, but it’s hard to beat New Orleans for replicating the Old Country. For starters, there’s that sticky, humid Southeast Asian–like weather. The food is pretty terrific, too. In the Versailles neighborhood, browse the Vietnamese farmers’ market in front of Ly’s Supermarket (Alcee Fortier Boulevard and Peltier Drive, Saturdays 5–9 a.m.). Hungry yet? We thought so. Head to nearby Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery & Restaurant (14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., New Orleans East; 504-254-0214) for sweets or a big bowl of spicy beef soup. And it’s worth the drive over to Gretna, for grilled-pork spring rolls at Phò Tâù Bay (113-C Westbank Expwy., Gretna; 504-368-9846), one of the city’s best Vietnamese restaurants.
Rego Park, Queens, NY
German and Dutch farmers once cultivated produce here, and the neighborhood was the setting of TV sitcom King of Queens. But here’s a more intriguing reason to visit: the population of Bukharians, a Jewish community originally from the Central Asian ’stans. About 40,000 have settled in New York since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most notably in Rego Park, a.k.a. Regostan, whose streets are flanked by colorful awnings and façades screaming out words like samsa, a cumin-spiked relative of the Indian samosa, and cheburek, a fried savory pie. Follow up a meal at salt-of-the-earth restaurant Cheburechnaya (92-09 63rd Dr.; 718-897-9080) with a visit to the Bhukarian Jewish Museum (60-05 Woodhaven Blvd.; 718-897-4124). Bonus: continue feasting in Queens’ better-known foodie destination of Jackson Heights, home to South Asians and South Americans.
Little Ethiopia, Washington, D.C.
Ethiopian immigrants who set up shop around the intersection of 9th and U streets have reenergized the area in the past decade, operating shops, restaurants, and cafés that cater to expats—D.C. has the largest Ethiopian population in North America, at about 250,000—and introduce others to the culture and cuisine of this northeast African country. Start your taste test at Dukem (1114 U St., NW; 202-667-8734) for a cup of coffee—a long cup of coffee, that is. The incense-laden Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes about 30 minutes, and it’s worth watching the servers roast and grind the beans then brew the coffee, all right in front of patrons. At Habesha Ethiopian Market, you can browse for Ethiopian coffee and other treats to enjoy at home.
Mahatma Gandhi District, Houston
In 1985, the Gahunias family opened up Raja Sweets (5667 Hillcroft Ave.; 713-782-5667), a pioneering Indian sweet shop in Houston’s southwest Hillcroft neighborhood. Indian grocers and restaurants soon followed, creating a hub for the 100,000 or so Indians who live in the greater Houston area—and earning the official designation of Mahatma Gandhi District in 2010. Bhojan specializes in the cuisine of Gujarat (a region in northwest India), namely vegetarian dishes like thali, small steel bowls filled with spicy veggies.
Little Lima, Paterson, NJ
The Dublin neighborhood of Paterson once thronged with—you guessed it—arrivals from Ireland. Lately, it’s been given a wash over with pisco: 2012 Dublin is made up largely of Peruvians, at least enough to earn the moniker Little Lima. Since Paterson is the second most densely populated city in the U.S. (after New York, 20 miles away), the best thing to do here is walk, gawking at the shops and restaurants. When you get hungry, join the crowd at Griselda’s (81 Market St.; 973-225-0331) for ceviche and jalea, a mixed seafood platter. Time your visit to July to witness the raucous Peruvian Festival. If you’re hungry for more, push on to Paterson’s Italian, Mexican, Dominican, and Puerto Rican enclaves.
Chinatown, Las Vegas
The world is dotted with Chinatowns. The largest may be in Saigon and the most famous in San Francisco, but one of the newest and most vibrant happens to be in Sin City. The neighborhood is centered around Chinatown Plaza, highlighted by a massive Chinese-style arch and lined with Asian-oriented businesses, such as jewelry stores (Tiayi Jade Gallery, 4255 Spring Mountain Rd.; 626-226-8789), bookstores (Great Wall Bookstore, 4255 Spring Mountain Rd.; 702-876-8875), and of course, restaurants. Tuck into Cantonese dishes at KJ Kitchen (5960 Spring Mountain Rd.; 702-221-0456) or tangerine-spiked chicken at Emperor’s Garden Restaurant.
Little Beirut, Dearborn, MI
The city of Dearborn, outside of Detroit, claims the largest proportion of Arab-Americans in the U.S., among them, Iraqis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and enough Lebanese to earn the nickname Little Beirut. The earliest such immigrants came here to work in the auto industry. The hometown of Ford Motor Co. also claims the largest mosque in America and the Arab American National Museum, which hosts a concert series. Refuel on Warren Avenue at Shatila Bakery or over lamb shwarma at Al-Ameer restaurant.
White Center, Seattle
Seattle has a reputation for coffee, airplanes, and ’90s grunge rock, but we think Cambodian culture should be thrown into the mix. See for yourself in White Center, a west Seattle neighborhood where Southeast Asians, particularly from Cambodia, have settled and set up shop in recent years. Queen’s Deli is a no-frills eatery serving spicy Cambodian fare like Phnom Penh noodles (9808 14th St. SW; 206-767-8363). For daylong performances, games, music, and other Cambodian-accented goodness, time your visit to the annual Cambodian New Year festival on April 28th at White Center (SW 98th St.)
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
As the folk dancing at the restaurant Tatiana hits a crescendo, patrons clap along, pour shots of vodka (every table comes with two bottles), say Na zdrovje—“to your health”—then slam their empty glasses down. But this isn’t Russia or Ukraine. Once a 19th-century resort town, Brighton Beach got a leopard-print facelift when Russians and Ukrainians (mostly Jewish) started showing up in droves in the 1970s. The neighborhood still has its own Russian language newspaper, TV channel, and radio station. And the main drag, Brighton Beach Boulevard, is crammed with Slavic goodness. You can pick up matryoshka dolls at Russian Favorite Gifts Co. (292 Brighton Beach Ave.; 718-891-0719) or plop down at the Royal Palace baths, where you can steam and sweat out all that vodka you consumed at Tatiana.
Frogtown, St. Paul, MN
A mention of the Hmong—an Asian ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos—is less likely to draw blank stares in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to 30,000 Hmong, the largest community outside of Southeast Asia, and their restaurants are clustered along University Avenue in the Frogtown neighborhood. It’s also where you’ll find the Hmong Cultural Center and, in warmer months, a farmers’ market, where Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants shop and eat (University Avenue and Kent Street).