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.
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!
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.
Authentic Ethnic Restaurants in Austin:
- 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.
- 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 - 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?
- 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.
- 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?