Immigrants have turned a neglected suburban corridor into a dining destination
Let us suppose you are in Indianapolis, and you are looking to track down Jonathan Brooks, one of the best chefs in a city where there is suddenly no shortage of very good things to eat. These days, you will find him spending a considerable amount of time standing at the pass of his imaginative new restaurant, Beholder, making sure everything is just so. Beholder, the reincarnation of a shuttered garage in a part of town that absolutely everyone will tell you, many times over, is very much on the edge, is the ambitious follow-up to Milktooth, the avant-garde breakfast joint that earned Brooks considerable national acclaim, kicking off with a Food & Wine Best New Chef nod, back in 2015.
When he's not busy making everything go at his restaurants, Brooks can be found, at least once a week, way on the other side of the city, in another part of town that local people will like to you remind you is somewhat less than on the beaten path, eating at a market stall that sells Asian snacks. This establishment is called the Asian Snack Stall, because that's what it sells, and you'll find it inside the Saraga International Grocery. Owned by two Korean brothers, John and Bong Sung, the Saraga market serves pretty much everybody, and sells a little bit of everything; right next to the snack stall there is a proper taqueria, a dimly-lit cave, like the kind of place you'd find by the side of the road in Mexico after dark, perhaps running on a generator.
"I get chive pancakes, and the spicy beef noodles, almost weekly," says Brooks—he's so into the pancakes, he's been trying to get the chefs behind the counter to give up their secrets.
The Saraga is an anchor for this particular neighborhood, one of those early Midwest suburban areas now overtaken by newer, more desirable shopping precincts. This is the sort of thing that happens when your city evolves as quickly as Indianapolis has been doing, lately—Indiana's big city finds itself on an elite list of Midwest metropolitan areas experiencing levels of growth more commonly associated with places that have a great deal less winter, but probably just as many Midwesterners.
This particular corner of the region's vast sprawl, with West 38th Street as its backbone, was not really what you'd ever call fashionable, but up until relatively recently, it was recognizable to most shoppers as a largely typical suburban strip—you had your Best Buy, your aging shopping mall still hanging on to its dignity, your Hooters. With two freeways running through here—one at either end of the strip—and so much of the shiny and new only a few more exits away, one by one, the familiar brands began to retreat, and now the dying shopping mall is pretty much dead, and the Hooters is gone, and everything looks different—these days, you come here for a pretty great bowl of pho, or a hearty lunch at a Mexican supermarket, or perhaps one of the best tortas in town, served from a little hut just behind a dusty old Dairy Queen. There is a panaderia, not far from the old gun shop that also sells live bait, there are storefront churches, the city's best Ethiopian restaurant is here, there's Gilma's Boutique (all quinceaneras catered for), a Steak and Shake, lest you forget you are in Indiana, a Dominican-owned barber shop, and a sign for an African restaurant, coming soon.
Starting off as a slow trickle, the transformation of the neighborhood has been considerable enough that the area has even undergone an organized rebranding effort, resulting in the installation of physical gateway markers, at either end of the West 38th Street strip. You may now refer to it as the International Marketplace, which implies something slightly more glorious, more fully formed than what you will find here, but every neighborhood's got to start somewhere, and considering the current pace of growth and change here in Indianapolis, it's safe to say that this is a part of town to keep your eye on.
Jonathan Brooks is not the only chef you will find hanging out around here, right now—Neal Brown is another star on the regional scene; his latest restaurant, Ukiyo, was one of the hottest openings of the past few months, alongside Beholder. Brown is such a fan of the neighborhood, he's even opening a restaurant here, an outpost of his popular pizza joint, Pizzology, which he first opened much closer to the heart of town, back in 2017.
"Saigon is my go-to for pho," says Brown, who estimates that he makes it out there—always sitting at the counter—at least three times a month. "I like to take my son Greyson to Las Chamoyas, for delicious and irresponsible portions of churros."
"What's so attractive to me about the location is that it has historically been a socioeconomic border between the haves and the have nots," says Brown, referring to 38th Street. "Pizzology is perfect, because of its accessibility and approachability. Everyone eats pizza, so if pizza can be the conduit to a more cohesive Indianapolis, I am all for it."
Headed this way? Here are five essential stops.
Tortas El Guero
This tiny Mexican sandwich shack is secretly one of the best places to eat in the neighborhood—duck in along with the lunch crowd for tortas )try the cecina de res, cured beef, with lettuce, tomato, avocado crema, and cheese, on a bolillo, just as it should be). Lots of people go for the tacos, as well, and they're not wrong. 3818 N. High School Rd.
Neal Brown is just one of many locals making the trek to this Cantonese restaurant for one of the few proper dim sum experiences in Indianapolis, with offerings ranging from the very familiar (pork buns) to the less so, at least to many locals (chicken feet). 3623 Commercial Dr.
This isn't just a butcher shop, it's a massive supermarket, with a sit-down restaurant, and it's like you're in Mexico, or at least somewhere a lot closer to the border. Cases full of pan dulce, shelves piled with malanga and turmeric root, oceans of fresh chiles of all kinds, a case full of tripa, and fresh chicharrones made right on premises, in an open kitchen—this place isn't messing around. Stop at the restaurant for seafood cocktails and tacos de adobada. There are two other locations in town—this one's the big one. 5210 W. Pike Plaza Rd.
Brown's go-to for pho is one of Indy's favorite Vietnamese joints, occupying the footprint of an old chain restaurant—stop by for the staples done well, from banh mi to soups to banh xeo, a full meal stuffed into crispy rice flour crepes. 5760 W. 38th St.
Saraga International Grocery
Don't be surprised to bump into Brooks and his Beholder team here, at the 62,000 square-foot store's Asian snack bar—Brooks is keen to serve their chive pancakes at his restaurant, so he could very well be here, taking notes. Note: There are two other locations of the market—one across town, the other in Columbus, Ohio. 3605 Commercial Dr.