Years ago, Central PA dining-out options were heavy on meat-and-potato dishes listed on one-page menus served by waitresses addressed as Gladys or Hon. Well, how times have changed. The growing diversity of our region has resulted in an array of dishes from around the globe that have whetted, and in some cases challenged, our taste buds with such things as eel wrapped in avocado, chicken vindaloo and curry goat. While Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese and Indian were among the first kinds of international restaurants to open here, more and more with foreign-sounding names have popped up in Harrisburg, Lancaster, York and elsewhere in the midstate.
Nino’s Bistro, a Camp Hill eatery that also sells Italian ingredients, and the market at the Asian Mall in Harrisburg help at-home cooks create their own international appetizers, entrees and desserts. It has become clear that chef/owners from beyond North America yearn to share their culture through their native foods.
Daniel Farias of Venezuela is one such chef who came to the region with a restaurant dream. In April 2009, he opened up Arepa City Latin Eatery on Harrisburg’s Second Street “restaurant row.” Tucked among some of the larger storefronts, Arepa City’s soothing décor, piped-in Spanish-language music and framed photography take you away to South America and make you forget that the state Capitol building is only down the block. As Farias tells it, many of the offerings listed on the menu are the same as those enjoyed at the shore towns and city street stands in Venezuela.
“I didn’t know if people in Central Pennsylvania would embrace this food,” he reflects. “When people come in here and don’t know what to order, I tell them, ‘Let me choose for you.’ ”
Word of mouth has made Arepa City a popular place for lunch and dinner. Appetizers include tasty tostones (fried green plantain) served with spicy slaw, fried yucca frita (cassava sticks — a plant native to South America) and tequeños (cheese wrapped in pastry dough and fried). All can be dipped in any one of a variety of sauces that are freshly made. The now-popular arepas are gluten-free Venezuelan corn buns filled with various combinations of cheeses, beef, pork, grilled vegetables and more. Central Pennsylvanians have also taken a liking to Arepa’s sopa de caraotas negras (black bean soup), as well as the corn and coconut flan.
Vy Banh, co-owner of Rice & Noodles in Lancaster, finds that many of her Central PA customers already have a knowledge of the Vietnamese dishes served in the four-year-old restaurant. Her family settled in Lancaster after fleeing Vietnam during the war and then leaving New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.
“Some customers have never had Vietnamese food, so we’re happy to explain our menu to them,” she says. “This type of food is different from other Asian food because we use fresh vegetables such as bean sprouts, basil and cilantro, and ingredients like fish sauce and ginger.”
Banh enjoys going out to eat and sampling different types of food. “It’s good to educate people about other cultures,” she says.
If a tropical island is calling your name, the Broad Street Market in Harrisburg has a cross-cultural selection with which to respond. In addition to Ly Ly Asian Food, a food stand that specializes in Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes, there are two Caribbean stands: Carib Soul, serving foods of Grenada, and Anne’s Caribbean Cuisine, with food from Trinidad.
“Trini food uses curry that is a spicier blend than Indian,” says Anne Timothy, operator of Anne’s Caribbean Cuisine. “We’re a mixed culture, and over the years the cuisine has blended.”
Timothy says Central Pennsylvanians who have vacationed in the Caribbean often come to her stand and order the foods they enjoyed during their island visits.
A taste of Belgium is available in downtown Carlisle, where Café Bruges offers authentic Belgian cuisine, beers and ales. The cafe remains true to the country’s French-Germanic traditions, yet at the same time uses locally grown ingredients for many of its dishes.
“I feel diners are tired of every restaurant offering the same cuisine,” says Ross Morris, a director of culinary at Café Bruges. “Traditional, authentic experiences are the future, and since travel has become prohibitively expensive, we can offer the same taste at home for less.”
Café Bruges’ Belgian fare includes appetizers such as leek tarte (leeks and creamy custard in a pastry shell) and entrees such as stoemp saucisse (mashed potatoes, leeks, carrots and cabbage with assorted sausages), waterzooi of fish (light creamy stew of snapper, scallop, shrimp and vegetables) and carbonade flamande (Flemish beef stew slow cooked in dark ale). A Belgian meal wouldn’t be complete without a Brussels-style waffle or Belgian dark chocolate mousse.
“The excitement generated by offering a new cuisine to the area is first felt by the most adventurous and ones who have been there,” Morris says, “followed by the curious, all of whom are pleasantly surprised.”
Click here to download a PDF file with recipes for Vietnamese Spring Rolls from Vy Banh, Asado Negro from Daniel Farias and Carbonades Flamandes (Flemish Beef Stew) from Ross Morris.
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