When I was growing up® we thought that the American food was magically delicious, something like what unicorns would eat, if we knew what the unicorns were. That’s why when we had foreign visitors in our schools, there were specific and strict instructions not to show our guests that we have any interest in their snacks and especially chewing gum. Chewing gum was worth more than its weight in gold and the sneaky elderly capitalists knew it when they were throwing it out by handfuls from the bus window, just to see the kids swarm and fight each other for the precious sticks. It was not uncommon to hear “Let me chew your gum” from someone in school and they didn’t mean a new wrapped one. Slowly but surely the American foods made their way Behind the Iron Curtain, first it was Pepsi in a long and complicated international deal, then McDonald’s.
The line to the first McDonald’s was so long, they made a whole video clip out of it.
Since then most people had enough time to realize that’s not everything is as good as one imagines it to be. Even people who invented McDonald’s and made it in what it is today, a place to get formerly cheap foul-smelling slop, are now looking to previously shunned ethnic cuisines to get their fill of interesting, healthy, unique and delicious foods.
Kansas City is often unfairly thought of as lacking in the ethnic food department. Thanks to an adventurous and diverse group of friends, my ever-expanding waistline and plenty of time to waste, I was lucky to try out many ethnic restaurants in the Metro, and on multiple occasions was privileged to eat in the company of people who know and can rate the food on its authenticity, quality and taste. If there was one common thread to all of these restaurants, it’s the willingness of their owners to accommodate requests, patiently explain every menu item and make you feel welcome and appreciated. Without any further introduction, these are the restaurants you should visit.
- Authentic Chinese: ABC Cafe, 10001 W 87th St,Overland Park, KS
If you’ve never tried the real Chinese food, this is the place to go. This restaurant caters to Asians, so when you walk in, the owner assumes that you came looking for sweet & sour chicken and will warn you that there is no such thing on the menu. I am sure she had her share of disappointed customers who complained when they didn’t find their favorite buffet selection. Do not let this scare you, sit down, have some green tea and some of the most flavorful food you ever had. When the restaurant first opened, some of the menu items were only written in Chinese. Since then (and I credit myself here, just because I can) they added color photos of most of the dishes and detailed descriptions of what you are being served. Ask the owner for suggestions, you will not regret it. Prices are cheap-to-reasonable, Dim Sum is on the menu all day, every day.
- Authentic Thai: Hot Basil, 7528 W 119th St, Overland Park, KS
This restaurant was recommended to me by Pete Dulin, chef, writer and Thai food expert, and I wasn’t disappointed. The food is delicious and flavorful, from appetizers to desserts, I had a very memorable and exciting meal at this restaurant. Prices are reasonable and the setting is good for a business lunch or just a fun dinner with friends.
- Authentic Malaysian: Malay Cafe, 6003 NW Barry Rd, Kansas City, MO
I don’t think I’ve ever ordered anything from the menu in this restaurant. I always come in, study the menu and just ask for something spicy. I never got the same thing twice and never something I didn’t like. Malaysian food tastes tropical, spicy, sweet and fragrant. The owners would go out of their way to offer you something you would like, they are some of the friendliest in town. Prices are reasonable and you get a lot of food. Do not miss it between all the Applebee’s and such.
- Middle-Eastern: Little Egypt Cafe, 3927 Broadway Street, Kansas City, MO
This restaurant has all the Middle-Eastern dishes you know and some that you don’t, they may show up as daily specials. I know you’d want to order hummus, but control yourself and try something that you haven’t had before. OK, order hummus on the side if you have to. Very friendly people, reasonable prices, fast service, you can’t go wrong at this place.
If you are not up for Egyptian food but still like to try something from the Middle East – Marrakech Cafe, 4116 Broadway, Kansas City, MO is just down the street. Everything I tried in this restaurant tasted great and had a distinct delicious flavor. Ask the owners for suggestions but tajine is something to try there, if they have it on the menu. Very inexpensive.
- Authentic Haitian and Ethiopian/Eritrean: Mesob-Pikliz, 3405 E Independence Ave., Kansas City, MO (warning: their website plays music, but it’s a nice song in French).
This place will blow your mind. It’s run by a couple – he is a school-trained Chef who puts contemporary twist on traditional Haitian food, with presentation and taste worthy of a TV show; she brings amazing home-made African dishes to the table. If you are a vegetarian this is the place where your meat-eating friends will be looking at your plate and not the other way around. Five minutes from downtown, awesome, exotic foods, reasonable prices, and you will feel welcome.
- Authentic Korean: Sobahn 7800 Shawnee Mission Pkwy, Overland Park, KS.
This restaurant is so authentic, even the furniture and plates were brought from Korea. While it’s usually quiet, they have enough room to accommodate a crowd, a large party or a wedding, and when was the last time you had Korean food at a wedding? The food at Sobahn is great, and some dishes taste surprisingly familiar, like something your grandmother would’ve cooked if she was Korean. Korean people know how to eat and how to party and the owners will make you feel at home. The younger generation of their family grew up in this area and they know how to help you find your favorite dish on the menu. The place looks welcoming and classy. Korean food is never cheap but it’s reasonable and is worth the price.
This is getting long and I didn’t even include any photos. Last one today -
- Authentic Central American: El Salvadoreño Restaurant and Pupuseria, 7926 Santa Fe Drive, Overland Park, KS.
Salvadorean food is simple, delicious and inexpensive. Service is fast and I saw people picking up huge bags of carryout containers. Food is cooked to order so it’s not exactly flying out to your table, but it’s not slow by any means. I just picked the first item on the menu that looked good and it was light, spicy, crispy and tasty. Many items are served with curtido – something between spicy coleslaw and sauerkraut. They bring out a whole jar of curtido to the table and I would go back just for that. Since I couldn’t find their website, I am posting their menu here.
In conclusion, these are some rules I have for visiting an ethnic restaurant: be polite and friendly, for many people English is the second language; if there are several people in your party, try to order for the table, sampler plate or just taste each other’s food; don’t act like a douchebag and display your disgust with yours and other people’s food; ask for suggestions; show interest, owners are eager to have you as a customer and will tell you everything you want to know; don’t be afraid to do it wrong, for example, I don’t eat with chopsticks, and don’t pretend like I am good at it; and most importantly – enjoy your meal.