Andrew Zimmern: Best Ethnic Food in the U.S.
This Detroit suburb may be better known as the headquarters for Ford Motor Co., but it’s also home to the largest population of Arab Americans in the United States (and the biggest mosque). The community of Iraqis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Lebanese, who originally immigrated to the area to work in the auto industry, have brought new energy and vitality to greater Detroit. Check out Al Ajami for fresh Middle Eastern food, serving both traditional (shwarma, kabobs, fresh pita) and dishes for the more adventurous (the veal brains are fantastic, as is the beef tongue). After a savory meal, head to Masri Sweets and satisfy your sweet tooth. At the family-owned operation, the Masri’s are baking fresh, nut- and date-filled treats such as baklava, cookies and mammoul every day.
Ellicott City, Maryland
Baltimore has the largest Korean population in the US outside Los Angeles and New York City, and over the past 30 years, they’ve established deep roots in the community. Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City is one of the top 10 Korean barbecue experiences in America. There is often a line of patrons willing to wait for the fantastic kalbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (thinly sliced beef), which come with enough banchan (side dishes) to fill the entire table. As with Korean tradition, expect a communal dining experience. For soon doo boo (tofu stew), go to Lighthouse Tofu & BBQ. The red pepperbased broth can be ordered with a variety of ingredients and spice levels, but they all come with a raw egg for you to crack into the boiling hot soup.
Vietnamese immigrants landed in the New Orleans area in the 1970s when the housing market was up and the economy booming, which forced first generation Vietnamese to settle in Versailles, Gretna and other Westbank communities. As a result of this isolation, the city’s Vietnamese population is less assimilated than, say, in Houston or in Orange County, California.
Head into these Westbank neighborhoods today, and you’ll hear only Vietnamese spoken. Go to the Vietnamese Farmers’ Market and you might as well be in Vietnam. You’ll find products for sale that aren’t common in the United States. The food is arguably better than it is in Vietnam, simply because of the availability of high-quality ingredients.
The Hmong are tribal people from the hills of Vietnam, Thailand and Laos who, after helping the United States in the Vietnam War, had to flee when American troops withdrew. Visit St. Paul’s Hmong Market, where a small lumberyard has turned into little Southeast Asia over the past decade. This is the country’s best and least-known ethnic market, with countless fruit and vegetable stalls and insanely delicious dishes in the food court. It’s my top lunch spot in the Twin Cities, serving everything from Hmong sausage to made-to-order papaya salads and hearty pho.
Miami’s population has seen a radical shift in recent years. Today, nearly 70 percent of the city’s residents are Latin American and nearly half are from Cuba. When you walk the streets of Little Havana, it can feel like you’re in a different country. For an authentic experience, put El Palacio de los Jugos on your list. The no-frills spot is known for fresh-squeezed sugarcane, fruit shakes, cheap Cuban food, and my favorite, the deep-fried, perfectly salty chicharrónes cut to order—they’re divine. Part fish-fry, part fresh seafood market, La Camaronera is a small, family-owned joint that’s been around for more than 40 years. It’s worth fighting the crowds for the minuta sandwich, butterflied snapper fillet with lemon, garlic and cumin on a Cuban-style bun. For Nicaraguan chow, I always head to Fritanga Montelimar. The nacatamales, sweet-and-sour tongue, roast chicken and pork ribs are spectacular. There is no bad dish in this restaurant; look inside the kitchen, all you see are grandmothers!
Washington, DC, is home to more than 250,000 people of Ethiopian decent, and the numbers are growing year by year. Little Ethiopia, the blocks surrounding 9th and U streets, used to be home to most of these East Africans, and the area still boasts a couple of dozen businesses and restaurants. Dukem is a staple of the U Street district and one of the best examples of Ethiopian cuisine in DC. They’re known for classic Ethiopian entrées such as tibs (the iconic dish of lamb, beef or vegetables covered in berbere spices), sambusas, and their popular traditional coffee service. As sky-high rents have forced many out of the neighborhood, you’ll find many immigrants moving to the burbs, where entire apartment complexes are filled with Ethiopian families, the hallways smell like an Addis Ababa spice market, and low-slung strip malls house East African businesses. In Silver Spring, Maryland, try Abol or Addis Ababa. At either restaurant, order one of the combination platters for the best introduction to classic Ethiopian dishes. Expect to use the injera (or spongy pancake) as your eating utensil.
Flushing, Queens, New York
If you’re in Manhattan’s Chinatown looking for New York City’s best Chinese food, you’re in the wrong place. Sure, there are a few great restaurants here and there, but with overcrowding and sky-high rents, recent Chinese immigrants have made the move to Flushing. The number of Chinese-born Flushing residents has doubled since 1990, and those residents have become more geographically diverse (meaning you’ll find more than fried rice and kung pao chicken on the menu). Restaurants and food courts in this neighborhood often feel thousands of miles away from Manhattan, serving meals Americans wouldn’t typically associate with Chinese food, and not speaking a lick of English. Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan is on my short list in this new Chinatown. Plan on ordering a variety of dishes to share with the table. My favorites: Cucumbers with scallion sauce and the dan dan noodles. Biang! (the latest from Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods) is another great option in the heart of Flushing. The sit-down restaurant has a better atmosphere than his other outposts, but the food still packs a punch with stellar dishes such as cumin-spiced lamb with longhorn peppers served over hand-ripped noodles.
Indians comprise the largest group of continental Asians in Texas; the state’s Indian population has doubled over the past decade. In the 1980s, the iconic Raja Quality Sweets opened in Houston’s Hillcroft neighborhood, and other Indian restaurants and grocers soon followed in its footsteps. In 2010, the area was officially named the Mahatma Gandhi District and is now a central hub for the 100,000-plus Indians who live in the area. Don’t be fooled. The vegetable curry and other cooked savory items at Raja are stellar.
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York
In the 1970s, Russians and Ukrainians started settling in this 19th century resort town. Today, Brighton Beach is home to the largest Russian-speaking immigrant community in the country, with more than half of the residents over 5 years old speaking Russian at home. This ethnic enclave seems miles (and often years) away from modern Manhattan. For dinner, you can’t pass up Café Glechik’s famed stew made of short ribs and potato dumplings. Or for a more unusual spot, Café “At Your Mother-in-Law” serves a mixture of Eastern European, Korean and Uzbek cuisines in the heart of Little Odessa.
About a third of Denver residents listed themselves as Mexican American on the 2010 Census, so it’s no surprise that nearly every local food writer you talk to says that if there’s a food that defines Denver—it’s Den-Mex. The signature of Den-Mex is green chile, a spicy bright orange sauce with the consistency of gravy, made from Colorado chiles, pork, lard and tomato. You can check out Chubby’s for a late-night after-the-bar gut bomb commodity burrito, but for truly amazing flavors El Taco de Mexico is a must. Denver’s quintessential taqueria, the authentic spot serves the best menudo and tacos in the city. I bet there isn't another restaurant in town that utilizes as many varied techniques of meat cookery as well as the grandmoms do behind the counter at ETM.
National City, a suburb along the coast, is home to one of the largest Filipino communities in the United States. If I had to choose one cuisine to be the next big thing, it’d be Filipino food. It combines the best of Asian flavors with Spanish technique. The Spanish were a colonial power there for 500 years, and they left behind adobo and cooking in vinegar—techniques that are miraculous when applied to tropical Asian ingredients. To cater to the community, fresh fish at Seafood City is flown in from every corner of Southeast Asia. Once you pick out your fish, head over to the fillet station and let the crew take care of the rest. They will even cook it for you! Everything they create at Tita’s Kitchenette is exquisite (I could eat here once a week). The sweet potato-shrimp fritters are as good as any I’ve tasted outside of the Philippines, the dinaguan and the sisig are insanely good but the grilled meats are not to be missed: huge skewers of chicken and pork that are marinated in a soy-lemon-pineapple bath before their trial by fire.