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How to find Authentic Ethnic food – the First Rule of Ethnic Cuisine

Crowded Restaurant in Madrid, Spain

My first rule of ethnic cuisine is simple.

An ethnic restaurant is much more likely to serve delicious, authentic food when people of that culture are enthusiastically cooking, serving, and eating the food. Bonus points if they are primarily speaking the language of that culture. Super bonus points if they have either a secret ethnic menu or non translated menu items.

If an ethnic restaurant meets none of these criteria, it’s likely to suck.  You wouldn’t want to eat at a Mexican restaurant in China where the waiter doesn’t even know what a taco is…. would you? (I think they called it a meat onion wrap)

I actually ate at exactly a place like this in 2000 and it was the worst Mexican culinary experience of my life. I don’t think the restaurant owners had ever eaten good Mexican food before, but then again none of their (very few) clients had either.

Ordering Mexican food in Chinese (no English or Spanish on the menu), eating cheese made by people who don’t eat cheese, and the ensuing stomach problems were all NO BUENO.

chinese_taco

The good stuff usually isn’t fancy

I’m a big fan of eating at off the radar, hole in the wall restaurants with great food.  This is often where the good stuff is!  My number one priority at a restaurant is to eat food that tastes good.  Often but not always, if a restaurant is not nice looking but still manages to draw a crowd, it’s good.

Also, authentic food tends to be quite inexpensive and free of expensive decor (but it’s not always the case).

One example of how a good restaurant can meet some, but not all of the criteria yet still serve delicious food… I recently was in San Francisco and met some friends at a fancy Indian restaurant. Usually, a brand new building in an expensive part of town is a sign that the food will be watered down to cater to American tastes (hello PF Changs).

I was about to write this place off,  when I took a whiff of heavy of cumin and saffron in the air.  As I walked through the restaurant to meet my friends, I noticed that more than half of the patrons of the restaurant and the entire wait staff were Indian.  Even though this restaurant had some warning signs, it passed the rule and it served delicious food!

 

Fried Chicken stand in Taipei, Taiwan that always has a crazy line

Finding Ethnic / Regional Food – Go where the locals go

The rules also apply while travelling internationally.  If you are overseas and trying to find an authentic meal, a great rule of thumb is to do as the locals do: if a restaurant is full of local looking people (READ: not tourists) eating, cooking, and serving the food, it’s likely pretty good!

Even better, if there’s a long line of people waiting for food even though there are similar restaurants nearby (usually with no line) – that’s a good sign that the food is extraordinary.

 

Ethnic Food in America

Often, ethnic food in America is altered for the middle American palate – usually sweeter, richer, bigger, meatier, saltier, milder, and less weird than the original version from the “old country”.

I think we can all agree that the Olive Garden  is not authentic Italian and that Panda Express is not an example of what people in Asia actually eat (way too sweet!). You also aren’t going to find frog legs or escargot at La Madeline or cow tongue at Taco bell.

To get to the real stuff, you have to find restaurants that cater to ex-pats from faraway lands. This often means journeying to International districts in your city where 1st generation immigrants live in greater numbers.  The larger the recent immigrant population in a city, the more likely the food of that culture is going to taste good.

Venturing outside of the standard American comfort zone might be off putting to some, but for people that want the real deal, finding gems like these makes life worth living.

Being one of these weird people, I’ve compiled a list authentic restaurants that I like in Austin, Texas which includes commentary on the parts of my first rule of ethnic cuisine these restaurants meet.

 

pig ears from Rice Bowl Cafe

Authentic Ethnic Restaurants in Austin:

 

Filipino

  • Gammad Oriental Store and Restaurant – simple Filipino food done right.  Bonus points for rock bottom prices, very vague  food descriptions , lack of a menu, and Filipino TV blasting all day.  Double bonus points because you can buy Filipino groceries in the same building. Try the ube (purple yam) ice cream… you probably have to ask the nice Filipino man who runs the store to bring it out of the back freezer.

 

Taiwanese

  • Rice Bowl Cafe – half the clientele here is Taiwanese, the staff speaks the Taiwanese dialect and they serve weird stuff like pork knuckle, pigs ears, & tripe.  They make the noodles here by hand (just like back home) and they have the best beef noodle soup in Austin!  Other Taiwanese street food favorites such as fried pork chop, fried chicken steak, green onion pie, beef roll, and 3 cup chicken are all delicious as well.  This restaurant also serves more typical Chinese food too – anything with fish or squid is delicious.
  • Tapioca House – you might as well be in Taiwan here.  The place is full of Taiwanese students all the time, the menu is just written on the wall in Chinese (no menus), the food is very inexpensive and it tastes a lot like home cooking.  Also, the A/C doesn’t work very well here, so it’s HOT like Taiwan, but the food is simple and delicious.  Try the Taiwanese style chicken nuggets and the fish cakes.  All combo meals are served with a soy marinated hard boiled egg (my comfort food).  Also, I think their pearl milk bubble tea is my favorite in the city.

 

asia cafe

 

Chinese

  • Asia Cafe - no attempt at decor, an all Chinese staff, and lots of very authentic food make this establishment pass the rule with flying colors.  The guy shouting your order up front is awesome.  They have a very extensive menu (that is full of misspellings… BONUS).  They also have some Chinese breakfast items on weekends (soy milk and fried bread).
  • Chen’s Noodle House – zero decor in a restaurant a little bit bigger than my bedroom.  Pretty much everything is made from scratch though and you can see the guys making noodles in the back.  Their flavors don’t even pretend to want to cater to American palettes.  I like the goat based soup with the hand cut noodles (it’s got some tomatoes in it too).
  • Pao’s Mandarin House – secret menu (ask for the Chinese menu, it still has English on it) and items that aren’t found at other restaurants in Austin (Chinese breakfast FTW).  On Sunday they do an a la carte Chinese breakfast menu.  This place doesn’t really pass the clientele rule, but hey – it’s in Lakeway, what do you expect?

 

Korean

  • Together Restaurant – they barely speak English here, you can eat snails and silkworm larvae, and the clientele is 90% Korean.  Passes all of the rules except for being inexpensive.  Get the pork belly – it’s grilled at your table! Together has my favorite banchan (small side dishes that accompany an entree) in Austin, but you might have some communication difficulties if you are completely unfamiliar with Korean cuisine (extra bonus points).  I also like the yukgaejang (spicy beef soup)!
  • Mom’s Taste – Convenience store that sells 30-40 kinds of prepared Korean foods out of industrial refrigerators. What a convenience store run by your favorite Korean auntie would look like. Zero explanation of any of the foods. I’ve literally never seen a non Korean person here.    Great place to buy raw marinated galbi to cook at home. They also sell mysterious fish egg pancake things that taste great.

 

South American

  • El Zunzal - I ran in to communication difficulties at this Salvadorian restaurant (bonus points), but the food was delicious!  I highly recommend the pupusas mixitos.  The slaw that they have works really well with these meat and cheese filled pastries.
  • Llama’s Peruvian Creole – very Authentic Peruvian food (according to all the Peruvian people I know).  I have a couple of Peruvian friends in town that swear this is the best Peruvian food in the city.  They are quite friendly here and willing to explain the different dishes, so this is a good place for noobs.
  • La Chapparita – only place in town to get Peruvian beer and Pisco that I know of.  The folks that run the counter are heavy on the Spanish, light on English, but the food is delicious.

 

The above is not an exhaustive list – I’m sure there are plenty more authentic restaurants in Austin, I just write what I know.

 

One final note

Before I get hated on in the comment section, I’ll say that there are exceptions to the rule.  Certain restaurants have people who are not of a certain ethnicity are cooking ethnic food that tastes pretty darn good, such as Sway Thai and Uchi.

In my mind, these restaurants serve delicious fusion food.

What this article highlights are restaurants that serve food that tastes like it does back “in the motherland.” There’s no denying that  people who are rooted in their culture  grew up eating their native foods every day, so the authentic flavors of a country are ingrained into their being.

Fusion restaurants blend the original cuisine with other influences, often creating something new and delicious, but what I’m interested in eating are the original flavors.

 

Do you have any additional rules for finding authentic ethnic cuisine?  Where are your favorite ethnic restaurants in Austin?

Posted in Food.


13 Responses

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  1. Jay Victorino says

    Gammad makes this list because it’s the only Filipino restaurant in Austin. And Filipinos wouldn’t even call it a restaurant. We refer to it as a Filipino store. Unfortunately, the best Filipino restaurants are in NY and New Jersey. The one I would take my “white” friends to is Pandan. See the New York Time review here: http://events.nytimes.com/2007/04/29/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/29dinenj.html?_r=0. This is the kind of Filipino restaurant that Filipinos are accustomed to in the Philippines.

    Paul Qui, who is Filipino, should open one that Filipinos can be proud of. I might actually just open one to see if there is a market here in Austin. Any investors?

    • Peter Tsai says

      @Jay – Admittedly I’m not a Filipino expert, but between Gammad and Fresh of the Truck, Gammad wins the authenticity trophy by a mile (since this article is more about finding food that’s not watered down to cater to American tastes). Thanks, I’ll check out Pandan next time I’m in New York.

      Would be nice to have more Filipino places in town. I think Paul Qui has his hands busy with 4-5 restaurants now and is more fusion than anything so he’s probably not too interested.

      I saw another “store” down by 888 on Oltorf called Cebu, but I think it’s closed now.

      • Jay Victorino says

        Appreciate the reply. Yes, Cebu is closed. Filipino cuisine is like any other cuisine in the sense that each part of the country will have different tastes and styles. Gammad may be viewed as authentic by those who aren’t familiar with Filipino culture. I may have misspoken when I said it wasn’t authentic. The dishes they put out is definitely Filipino. What makes it not a true Filipino restaurant is more about aestethics. If and when you visit the Philippines, you won’t find the average Filipino visit a place like Gammad unless you’re living in the slums. That’s the sad part. So basically, it’s not about Americanizing the flavors. It’s more about presentation.

        As far as Filipino food trucks go, I did enjoy one called Asia-Pacific. That’s also another reason I think Filipino cuisine isn’t popular. Many decide to make their name more encompassing when in reality it is just Filipino cuisine.

        Maybe I’ll bump into you at some obscure restaurant. Coming from Jersey/NYC, it’s what I look for in dining out. :)

        • Peter Tsai says

          @Jay – would be cool to bump into around town! We’re at Together a lot.

          I forgot about “Be More Pacific” until I saw your comment. Yea they were pretty good but they are appealing to a mass audience.

          Thanks for leaving your comments and for dropping some knowledge. I haven’t been to the Philippines before but I would like to check it out some day to experience the real thing.

          Usually when I’m in Asia, it’s either in Taiwan (where my extended family lives), or in Korea (where my fiancee’s extended family lives), but maybe we can sneak away for 4-5 days.

  2. Mad Betty says

    Great post! I love to seek out the hole-in-the-wall places in every new city I visit. Most of my favorite food memories take places in little ethnic dives where I have no idea what I’m eating, or often, what the place is even called.

  3. Optimista says

    I am laughing at the giant “Jung Guo Taco No Bueno” sign up there!

    Looks like I need to go back to Tapioca House. I think I ordered wrong last time I was there. I can always count on you to steer me to dishes I will LOVE. Still thinking about that egg pancake thing at Duy…

    • Optimista says

      Oops. I just realized I misspelled “Zhong Gho.” I’m not a very authentic Chinese person this late at night. :)

  4. Shirley Aldana says

    Ha! you are god sent! I am a co-organizer for the Austin Multicultural Friends Redux Meet-Up group ( http://www.meetup.com/Austin-Multicultural-Friends-Redux/ ) and your list should keep us busy for a while :)

    I am from Los Angeles and despite all the good eats around Austin, I am having a really hard time finding some authentic ethnic, and minority owned restaurants! I love Ethiopian food and have two found restaurants so far: Habesha which has a little more of an ambiance than Aster which is also good. In terms of Latin American cuisine I prefer regional foods from Oaxaca and the Yucatan (in Mexico) which I have not found; I’ve given up finding Guatemalan or Central American restaurants around here (which sucks because I am from Guatemala and miss moms cooking!). I also miss my favorite 24hour Korean BBQ in Ktown and my favorite Dim Sum place in old Chinatown in DTLA.

    Thank you again! and hopefully you will join us at the next Meet-Up :)

    • Optimista says

      Shirley, I highly recommend Taste of Ethiopia in Pflugerville. It’s delicious, and the owner is so warm and welcoming!

  5. Kulturos says

    I agree that trying local cuisine is essential while visiting new place. Although, sometimes it’s difficult to decide, which restaurant or bar is the best place, so your tips are very useful.

  6. Andy Nguyen says

    Glad I found your site, Peter!

    One thing we do when traveling to new places is to ask the locals where to eat, but we don’t ask “Where is a great restaurant?” because we have found that people tend to tell us where they THINK we, the foreigners, would think is great, not where THEY think is great. Instead we ask, “Where do you usually take your family/significant others/best friends for a special dinner?”

    • Peter Tsai says

      Andy, thanks for leaving a comment! Yes that’s a great point.

      I remember that my relatives used to want to take me to eat American food when I was in Taiwan, and it was usually really not good. Now I definitely want to go where the locals actually go themselves.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Austin Guide to Korean Food – Korean Restaurants in Austin – The Tasting Buds | Austin Food Blog linked to this post on October 23, 2013

    […] This is a Korean restaurant frequented almost exclusively by Koreans (which means it passes the authenticity test but communication might be a little difficult as 1/4th of the menu is in Korean with cryptic […]



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