My introduction to food of different cultures came at the time when it does for many an impressionable Midwest suburban white young adult: college.
The further removed I was from home, the further my journey took me from the foods I was so familiar with at the family table: meat dishes whose instructions were to shake and bake; cholesterol-bomb casseroles of rice, Tater Tots, cream of mushroom soup, and (I'm assuming for laughs) broccoli; and, on Sundays, pot roast with potatoes and carrots followed by a glass dish of chocolate Jell-O pudding.
That isn't to say that before college I was never exposed to family meals of a more "exotic" nature. My first foray into Mexican food came via "taco night," in which my sister and I would gleefully pack Ortega hard taco shells with ground hamburger and Kraft shredded cheese. "Chop suey night," our American Chinese adventure, was a concoction of chunks of boiled beef and chopped celery in a thin broth topped with La Choy crunchy noodles. (I was not a fan of chop suey night.) And although it did not have a dedicated evening, "goulash" — a frequently eaten dish made with Mueller's elbow noodles, Hunt's canned tomatoes, and ground hamburger — was as close to Hungarian cuisine as I, unknowingly, would ever come at that time.
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With my new world of college came a new world of food, one that was decidedly different, crazily cheap, and tasted awfully good. Almost overnight, I was sweating over curry dishes, digging into hummus platters, and breaking up pieces of spongy injera bread with likeminded curious friends. If my education was paving the way for my future, then I was convinced these meals were preparing me for the people I would meet and places I would go along the way.
They did. And I was hooked.
Now, thanks to food television and the Internet, becoming educated on the cuisines of other countries is easier than ever (if you're looking for a good summer read on the subject, try An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen). But often, finding the restaurants that specialize in them still means employing the same techniques I used in college: talking to friends, driving around new neighborhoods, and taking a chance on that new little spot that just opened down the street.
I find that more than just the dishes — although that part is very nice — the discovery includes the people and the cultures behind them. I've had the pleasure of watching (and trying to discuss) the last presidential election with the regulars at an Ethiopian restaurant; laughed out loud when three of my male dining companions were rendered speechless by a fiery female owner of a Korean spot who chided them for not finishing their meals; and choked down tears when a server at a small Mexican eatery delivered, along with my gelatina de flor, a Spanish song sung so sweetly it silenced every diner in the place.
Here are a few places that not only feature culturally different cuisines that are certainly cool on their own, but also offer up a little extra something to make the experience all the more unique.
Late-Night Korean Eats at Café Ga Hyang: Before June 2011, the Valley's only place to score tasty, late-night Korean food was 360 miles away in Koreatown, the neighborhood in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles. But thanks to Nick Rocha and Sun Johnson, this welcoming west-side restaurant in Glendale serves up scratch-made traditional Korean dishes until 2 a.m. every day but Sunday. After 10 p.m., the restaurant feels more like a Koreatown bar, where Ga Hyang's Korean regulars, along with the area's restaurant industry folk, come together for dishes like seafood pancakes, Korean fried chicken, and the refreshingly cold noodle dish naeng myun over cold bottles of Hite, Soju, and glasses of pomegranate wine. If the karaoke machine's been set up in the corner, additional entertainment is just a "My Way" away. (4362 W. Olive Ave., Glendale, 623-937-8550)
Sleight of Flour-Dusted Hand at China Magic Noodle House: The magic at this modest Chinese restaurant, tucked around the corner from Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket in Chandler, comes in two parts: First, through the dining area's large picture window where, in the style of the Lanzhou region of northwestern China, noodle-making master chef Zhang Qiang puts on a skillful show of stretching, slinging, spinning, and pulling dough into five kinds of made-to-order noodles. And second: that moment when one of the creations you just witnessed come into being lands as a tender and slippery noodle-nest in front of you — fried and paired with delectable meats and vegetables, sunk into flavorful broths, or soaked in a creamy yellow curry. (2015 N. Dobson Road, Chandler, 480-786-8002)
Meat and Bread and Bascarsija at Old Town Sarajevo in North Phoenix: For those whose immediate travel plans don't include a trip to the capital of Bosnia, you could do worse than a journey to Old Town Sarajevo. A kind of southeastern European tribute to meat and bread served inside a movie set-like replication of Bašcaršija, the Old Town market sector where Sarajevo was founded, the restaurant features Bosnian-born owner Seida Turulja's delectable lepinja (housemade Bosnian bread) bulked out with sausages in addition to home-style meat stews and giant, flaky pastries filled with beef and cheese. Close your eyes and you may hear the working replica of the town's famous fountain, Sebilj, gurgling nearby. (3411 W. Northern Ave., 602-246-8004)
An Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony in Phoenix: For most of us, coffee routines fall somewhere between needing to perk up and pressed for time. But for those from Ethiopia, a country believed to be the birthplace of the brewed beverage, the coffee ceremony is a unique and relaxing cultural ritual. See for yourself at Ethiopian Famous Restaurant and Coffee in East Phoenix, where Abebech Ejersa takes java fans on an hour-plus journey though the full life cycle of coffee, or bunna (boo-na), that involves roasting, snacking, sniffing, and, finally, sipping. The cost of the coffee ceremony is $12 for two to five people. Reservations need to be made an hour in advance — more than enough time to enjoy one of Ejersa's delectable wat platters beforehand. (4111 E. McDowell Road, 602-275-5663)
Fondue with an Asian Twist at Tien Wong Hot Pot: No stranger to Asian eats accompanied by a little entertainment, Hong Kong-born chef Johnny Chu (Fate, Sens, Sochu House) brings the hip and the dip to this Chandler strip-mall restaurant where you and your dining companions get to play both guest and chef. Starring the Chinese hot pot, a communal stew with a history that goes back to the 13th century, Tien Wong invites diners to start the fun by picking a broth followed by ingredients like sliced pork, razor clams, noodles, Korean pumpkin, mushrooms, and spicy tofu. What's not to love about cooking (and socializing) at the table together? Not a thing. Especially when the result is hot cups of flavorful, we-made-it-ourselves soup. (2330 N. Alma School Road, Chandler, 480-802-2525)