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Where have all the 'ethnic' restaurants gone?

Korean galbi from Kabojung in South Korea.
Korean galbi from Kabojung in South Korea.

OpenTable recently released its “Best Overall Restaurants” list for the Triangle area and after perusing the paltry list, I got upset. From the list of Raleigh restaurants, the only ethnic restaurant was Bida Manda. The rest were high-end, contemporary American restaurants, and mostly steakhouses at that.

Now, I’m fully cognizant of where I live--in a semi-metropolitan city in the South--but can’t some more of the great ethnic restaurants in our area get more recognition? And, I’m not just talking about the Westernized, Asian-fusion restaurants scattered throughout downtown Raleigh. Restaurants located in downtown Raleigh filed under the “ethnic” category (and I loathe to even use the word “ethnic”) all get plenty of press from local publications, blogs, and pedantic Yelpers. However, when the ethnic fare out of these restaurants becomes subverted as a new modern standard for the ethnic food that they each emblematize, well, that’s when it becomes troubling.

And, it’s not that any of these restaurants are serve bad food. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. I’ve patronized almost all of the ethnic downtown Raleigh restaurants and they are all, on a whole, delicious. It’s pleasant enough to sit in a trendy environment among the glittery, cultural trappings on display, a hookah pipe or a samurai sword, while they gently remind guests of the restaurant’s cultural nativity and modestly flaunts its American exceptionalism at the same exact time.

The trouble begins with the fact that, in some of these downtown restaurants, the ethnic fare that each represents is distilled, or sterilized, to appeal to a broader, more homogeneous group where the xenophobic-leaning palettes of its clientele may be apt to discriminate against foreign-sounding ingredients, flavors and presentation. Now, that fact in itself, may be no big deal. But, when that same sect of the clientele accepts the fare as an actual representation of authenticity, not fully aware of the cultural appropriation that may or may not be lurking in the kitchen wings--well, quite frankly, it’s disturbing. Some people’s inspection into another culture seldom delves further beyond festishizing the food and uploading mobile snapshots onto Instagram for peer adoration.

And, perhaps worse yet, these downtown restaurants also hardly cull a clientele that reflects the region’s fare. When is the last time you witnessed a Japanese family chowing down on a “Wolfpack roll” at Sono or an Indian couple consuming dosa at Mantra? Say what you will about percentage of population, but I can tell you that Indian families are actually gathering en masse at a place like Morrisville’s Tower restaurant and tables of Vietnamese families come together every night at Pho Super 9.

You have to hop into the Chevy Suburban to venture “outside-the-beltline” into the outskirts, deep into the strip mall fringe, to properly consume some of the area’s best authentic fare. And it’s about time that these restaurants and their respective chefs get their deserved due in the local restaurant press. Immigrant chefs cooking their country’s cuisine many times don’t have the immediate capital to open up in high-rent locales like downtown, don’t have the dollars dedicated to advertising and many times don’t even bother with fancy, streamlined decor or matching silverware. They settle for off-kilter locations in towns like Morrisville and Cary and let the food speak for themselves.

And, it usually works. Just check out the crowds at Taipei 101 in Cary, or the tables at Fonda y Birrieria Jalisco. Amazing food is being served daily at Raleigh’s Macchu Picchu and at Seoul Garden around the corner. Authentic doesn’t always equate to “best”, but the sheer number of people that file into these restaurants spread around the Triangle may beg to differ.

These restaurants, unfortunately, just don’t have a culturally-respected figurehead on the localized level like an Anthony Bourdain or a cultural omnivore like Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic Jonathan Gold to proselytize, drumming up awareness and fostering better public relations in the area. Scant attention to these restaurant is only paid on local lists when parsed down to sub-categories like “Best Middle Eastern” or “Best Ethiopian”.

I cringe when I hear people pridefully proclaim that a certain “Chinese” restaurant located inside-the-beltline serves the “best Chinese food” in town. Newsflash to those who actually care: Chinese people do not eat fried bits of cream-cheese slathered crab rangoon on a daily basis and don’t eat indiscriminate globs of General Tso’s chicken either. These type of Chinese restaurants all whittle down their glossed menus to Americanized versions to appease the undiscerning public. Chinese families actually eat dishes like mapo tofu, spicy pork intestine and stewed beef noodle soup.

And if haven’t completely scrunched up your nose in disgust, maybe you’ll be encouraged enough to patronize the often less-recognized “ethnic” restaurant and perhaps the next time around the yearly “best of” lists are released, some of them will get their sliver of time in the limelight.

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