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A lot of people call Vietnamese or Nigerian eateries “ethnic,” but they look at you funny if you use the same word to describe a pizzeria or a fancy French dining room. What’s up with that?
“Immigrants’ identities are deeply tied to the foods we bring with us,” Washington Post features writer Lavanya Ramanathan wrote in a 2015 story that explained it well.
Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies, added: “We use the descriptor ‘ethnic’ for a category of things we don’t know much about, don’t understand much about and yet find it valid to express opinions about.”
That’s enough for me. When people tell me how they’d like me to talk about them, I’ll listen. So let’s call them “world” restaurants in this week’s excursion into good things to eat, a round-the-world trip without leaving Louisville.
Here’s a random list of favorites among the city’s immigrant-owned dining rooms that I most enjoy.
Africa: West African
I love Louisville’s only Nigerian restaurant for its friendly, welcoming service and its delicious introduction to Nigerian cuisine, with a few leaps into other African regions and beyond. (Funmi’s Cafe, 3028 Bardstown Road, 454-5009)
Queen of Sheba
With the exception of pandemic regulations, Ethiopian food is served in the traditional style: Spread out on a large, communal plate lined with thin, spongy injera bread. Tear off bits of the injera to pick up bites of delicious, spicy East African dishes. Yes, they’ll offer you knives and forks,, but give the traditional method a try. (Queen of Sheba, 2804 Taylorsville Road, 459-6301)
These two favorite Chinese places make my list for offering an authentic Chinese menu (in English) as well as traditional Chinese-American cuisine.
Jasmine Asian Bistro
Jasmine Asian Bistro in Holiday Manor is my go-to for a serious Chinese meal. Its extensive menu includes about 220 Chinese dishes, almost half of them in the “Chinese authentic” section; it’s tilted toward the spicy fare of China’s Sichuan region but adds other regional favorites. (Jasmine Asian Bistro, 2420 Lime Kiln Lane, 618-3000)
Peking City Express
Not just another fortune-cookie-cutter fast-food Chinese joint, this little shop does a lot of takeout and delivery, but it’s worth sitting down for its authentic Chinese menu, elevated by the hand of an exceptional Chinese chef. (Peking City Express Chinese Cuisine, 4000 Dutchmans Lane, 891-0388)
Louisville has at least 15 Indian restaurants, and I love them all. Here are two favorites because I can’t pick just one.
Dakshin’s menu is said to include at least one dish from every Indian state, from Tamil Nadu and the Malabar Coast to Kashmir and the Himalayas. This makes for a massive bill of fare with more than 200 items, virtually all at remarkably affordable prices. (Dakshin Indian Restaurant, 4742 Bardstown Road, 491-7412)
Bombay Grill’s 150 dishes are helpfully categorized by type of dish or primary ingredient. The lengthy menu features the cuisines of Andhra, Chettinad, Chennai, Mysore, even the restaurant’s namesake Bombay, now known as Mumbai. (Bombay Grill, 216 N. Hurstbourne Parkway, 425-8892)
It’s hard to top Aladdin’s in New Albany for excellent Mediterranean fare. It turns out appetizing, thoughtfully-prepared dishes that reveal a serious chef in the kitchen. Dishes are prepared to order, and adhere to a high standard of quality and freshness. (Aladdin’s Cafe, 37 Bank St., New Albany, Indiana, 489-7969)
El Mundo has been a Frankfort Avenue landmark for more than 25 years, and I’ve loved it since the very first. Its fare is authentically Mexican, and it’s distinctly chef-driven, with creative touches in flavor and presentation. Its funky two-story interior, attractive backyard patio, and serious bar program are all happy plusses. (El Mundo, 2345 Frankfort Ave., 899-9930; a second shop opened last year at 1767 Bardstown Road, 384-5633)
I’m a fan of dozens of local taquerias, but I’m always happy to return to El Mariachi. Located in a short Mexican shopping strip with its roots in Mexico’s Guanajuato region, El Mariachi boasts exceptional taqueria fare made from fresh, natural ingredients largely obtained from local farms. (El Mariachi Restaurante Mexicano, 9901 Lagrange Road, 413-5770)
Fierce attention to consistency, detail, artful presentation and commitment to high-quality Mexican cuisine with a focus on brunch and lunch elevate Con Huevos. Pastured eggs from local farmers, torta breads from a local panaderia, and locally-sourced meats and produce and high quality work in the kitchen make Con Huevos a keeper. (Con Huevos, 2339 Frankfort Ave., 384-3027, and 4938 U.S. 42, 384-3744)
It’s easy to stereotype Louisville Vietnamese dining as a drive out to the Southeast Asian communities in the South End. But you’ll find good Vietnamese eats all over town, and tiny Eatz Vietnamese is one of my favorites. Its pho is spectacular, and the rest of the menu is right up there with it. (Eatz Vietnamese, 974 Barret Ave., 785-4450)
This St. Matthews-area favorite has been a beacon for excellent Thai fare for 15 years. Its extensive menu covers the Thai basics and more with high quality Thai fare; and on the side, a selection of sushi. (Simply Thai, 323 Wallace Ave., 899-9670, and 12003 Shelbyville Road, 690-8344)