ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) – The love of travel and food culture are deeply connected, and as the late Chef Paul Prudhomme once said, “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.”
This rings especially true when times are hard, and our lifelong dreams of taking an international holiday or booking cross-country food tour get pushed out year after year as our travel funds dry up.
Nevertheless, we have chances to explore the world and try new things even in our own city, switching up our restaurant routine and trying local foods with origins from around the globe. When you start to look for those hole-in-the-wall, “Mom and Pop” shops tucked into small strip malls, the density and variety of locally owned international restaurants is astonishing.
There are many more throughout our 10-parish area – featuring Italian, Korean, or almost any other fare your heart desires, but for the purposes of this article, we zoom in on just a few of Alexandria’s centrally located hidden gems to simultaneously inspire new travel goals and appease some wanderlust.
Food genre – Multi-regional Indian cuisine: Located at 1473 Dorchester Drive behind Kroger and Petco
First thing’s first: menu recommendations…
- For the newbies: Many of us have never tried Indian cuisine before and don’t know where to start. For the apprehensive newbie or the notoriously picky eater, try the Royal Samosa appetizer for $4.95. They are deep fried and akin to meat pies, but instead stuffed with fragrant potatoes, peas, and onions.
- Budget-friendly entrée: Try the Yellow Dal Tadka for $10.95. Cooked with herbs and spices and served with rice, these savory yellow lentils are as comforting as your grandma’s black-eyed peas.
- Meat-lovers entrée: The Kashmiri Roganjosh is a lamb curry sent straight from heaven, served with rice, and priced at $17.95.
About the restaurant and team:
Dining at the Bistro is a chance to feel like royalty. The location is quietly tucked behind Kroger (formerly home to Viet Thai Bistro until its closure in 2020), but the modern lighting and simple flower arrangements on each table make it feel fresh and elegant.
Hailing from the state of Maharashtra in western India, Executive Chef Sagar Suslade designed the menu with the aim to wow all guests no matter their dietary restrictions or budget.
Although the presentation and quality are the same, some dishes are lavish, while others are reminiscent of the humble comfort food all Louisianians know and love. Customers looking for vegan and/or gluten free options will have over a dozen items to choose from.
After opening amid the pandemic just 10 months ago, Chef Sagar, his lead server, Vinit, and staff have really hit a stride. Each month they have added new options for experiencing what they have to offer, most recently with the addition of the all-you-can-eat Saturday and Sunday buffet (priced at $15.99 for adults, $8.99 for kids). The variety and caliber of menu items makes this one of the best deals in town and a great way to explore the menu.
Through food, Chef Sagar and his team are proud to offer a glimpse into the way of life in their home country, explaining that the restaurant is “not just a business in the traditional sense,” said Sagar. “It is a social and cultural service to the local community.”
Indeed, Chef Sagar is looking for ways to get involved in the well-being of central Louisiana, and he’s eager to partner with local organizations and offer his food services for fundraising or other outreach events. If your organization would be interested in partnering with Royal India Bistro, please call the restaurant at 318-704-1763 and ask for Chef Sagar.
Food genre – Asian fusion: Located at 3650 North Boulevard next to Books-A-Million
- Crowd-pleaser: Try the #1 customer favorite, traditional Pad Thai for $14.50 (pictured above). This globally recognized dish can be topped with your protein of choice (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or tofu for a vegetarian option), but the savory rice noodles and crunchy vegetables are the real star of the show.
- On the healthier side: For something light and refreshing, check out the Pepper Lemongrass Stir Fry plate ($14 and served with rice). This Cambodian dish (pictured below) is made with fragrant lemongrass herbs, fresh bell pepper, chopped peanuts, and your choice of protein.
About the restaurant and team:
This eatery is one of Alexandria’s best kept secrets. Opened in 2016 by Owner/Executive Chef Chantar and her husband Ty, the menu offers a colorful array of geographical cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Singaporean, and more.
While Chef Chantar was in the back managing the kitchen and churning out dishes, I sat down with Ty, who oversees the front-of-house operations and spends his days contentedly chatting and laughing with their customers.
Ty immigrated to the United States in 1980 from the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia, hailing from a beautiful but deeply impoverished community. Highlighting the selection of dishes from his home country, he pointed out that while he and his wife own their own business and are living the American dream, “people in Cambodia would be happy just to have something to eat.”
The owners pride themselves on the quality of their product, especially the specialty milk teas called “bubble tea” or “boba,” which has become increasingly popular with the local teens. Using raw ingredients sourced from Asian markets in Houston, TX, the customers say the sweet taro root boba “tastes just like Captain Crunch,” and demand is picking up big time. It’s easy to see why Noodles & Grill is a favorite of its devoted regulars, relying solely on word of mouth for advertising.
“My intent is… well, money is not the big thing,” Ty said. “We just want to have something to do and let people enjoy our food. We have a lot of repeat customers. In fact, see that guy right there? He came in on the second day we opened and has been coming back every week since.”
Food genre – Mediterranean and Middle Eastern: Located at 3425 Jackson Street in Emerald Square at the Jackson/MacArthur overpass
- For vegans and omnivore’s: The a la carte falafel wrap ($7.99) is perfect for a light but flavorful plant-based meal, one that won’t break the bank and that you can feel good about putting in your body. While the other pita wraps are topped with tangy (dairy-based) Grecian dip, this dish comes with homemade tahini sauce made with sesame seeds ground into a creamy blend.
- The National Dish of Lebanon: Check out the Fried Kibbeh appetizer ($6.99) for something that will seem totally new (unless your ancestors lived on the Mediterranean Sea). In what can only be compared to a crunchy-exterior boudin ball, the center is filled with seasoned ground beef and enclosed in a wheat cracker crust, served with that yummy Grecian dip on the side.
- To try a little of everything: If you want to treat yourself, try the Mixed Kabob entrée for $24.99. It comes with a combo of any two grilled meats (I’m endorsing the lamb as well as the kafta, which is like a ground beef sausage link), their iconic feta salad, grilled vegetables, and rice and hummus. It’s a feast will move this area of the world to the top of your travel wish list!
About the restaurant and team:
As the restaurant with the longest tenure and possibly the most well-known on our list, customers may remember when Apollo was opened 13 years ago by owner Munir Abuhmoud and his family. The Abuhmoud’s moved from Jerusalem, Israel, to Lafayette, Louisiana many years ago and eventually landed in Alexandria, but they are lucky to be able return home often to visit grandparents and cousins.
Family is clearly the centerpiece of the restaurant and its management culture, as even now the shop is manned by Munir’s son, 19-year-old Motusem Abuhmoud, and his young cousin, 15-year-old Adam Salam. Motusem is managing the store while working toward his real estate license and Adam is a student at Alexandria Senior High School.
Although the restaurant is a go-to for customers of all nationalities, it serves a special function in a city without a full-service international market, offering products and experiences that remind people of home.
“We have a lot of Syrian customers and lots of Lebanese customers; we have customers from all around the Middle East because we share food traditions. You’ll find this type of food everywhere in the Middle East because there’s a lot of overlapping ingredients,” Motusem said.
They even have a small section of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern grocery products, including stuffed grape leaves, falafel mix, and special spices so that customers can make their favorite dishes at home.
Food genre – Caribbean fare: Located at 1235 Texas Avenue across from Wildwood Pizza
- Familiar favorites: Savor these delicious Jerk Chicken Quesadillas (pictured below; $10.50; full-time menu item). This hearty entrée packs a punch with just the right amount of spice! For folks wanting to steer clear of the heat, grab a side of sour cream to compliment the buttery tortilla and balance out the peppery Jerk sauce.
- For adventurous eaters: The Jamaican Oxtails with Grits or Rasta Pasta ($16.00; specialty item with limited availability) is the showstopper that’s got customers lining up to pre-order. As the only place you can find prepared oxtail in town, this slow-braised specialty cut (beef or veal) falls off the bone before it melts in your mouth.
- For seafood lovers: The Royal Onion’s Jerk Shrimp and Grits ($12.50; full-time menu item) taste like someone’s Grandma woke up early to make them for the whole family. Fluffy. Buttery. Tastes like love.
About the restaurant and team:
This vibrant restaurant is one of Alexandria’s newest additions (with an inspiring story to match). The joint venture of husband-and-wife Corey and Nieshala Smith, the Royal Onion started as a side hobby, a way to share their worldly knowledge and Nieshala’s culinary skills with friends, family, and neighbors.
During their annual vacations to the Caribbean, they would tour the local cuisines, sampling dishes with traces of African, Creole, European, and Latin American influences. Eating their way around the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, they sampled foods that many of Louisiana’s iconic dishes can consider ancestors. Each time, Nieshala couldn’t wait to get home and try her hand at emulating those flavor combinations.
The food truck wave had not yet hit central Louisiana, but Nieshala knew she needed a way to spend more time doing what she loved.
In 2018, the couple ventured into the unknown and opened shop in the front yard of their home in Pineville, LA, originally operating out of a customized food trailer. At that point, it was solely a weekend gig, as they were both still working full time at Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Almost immediately, the response blew them away. Customers from all around town would zip over to grab a bite after Nieshala posted on Facebook stating they were open for business for the day. They quickly had to buy a bigger vehicle, this time opting for a food truck, so that they could churn out as much food as possible for their hungry customers. Before long, they realized that neither the food truck nor the weekend-only schedule was going to cut it if they wanted to keep up with demand.
Even considering changing the trajectory of their careers was no small decision. “We are a Procter & Gamble family,” they affirmed.
“I had been at P&G over the safety department and had a good thing going, but this was my passion,” Nieshala said. “We were in limbo for years, but once we got the trailer and saw that we could really do this and make money, I finally decided last year to quit my job after almost 13 years with the company. To this day, my former coworkers and managers have been so supportive.”
“Thinking about it now is funny because we’ve come such a long way,” Nieshala said.
One thing they want to make sure everyone knows: “The Royal Onion is not just Jamaican!”
Just like Caribbean heritage itself is a rich blend of cultures from all over the world, their menu represents a mixture of foodways and traditions.
The diversity of businesses coming to Alexandria’s Mid-City neighborhood seems to be breathing a little life into the area, thanks in no small part to local business owners who invest their time and money into making Alexandria a better place to live (and eat).
*Special thanks to the owners and staff of Royal India Bistro, Noodles & Grill, Apollo Greek & Lebanese Café, and the Royal Onion for your generosity and accessibility in creating this story.*
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