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On Columbus Day, discoveries in Columbus, OH

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On Columbus Day, discoveries in Columbus, OH

Matt | Oct 13, 2003 10:08 PM

Most of the Columbus, Ohio-related posts I've seen on this board have covered the same ground: Schmidt's sausages, Lemongrass and other restaurants in the Short North, the many culinary adventures to be had (sort of) in the Easton mall complex. All interesting and tasty, but I'd been wondering if Columbus had more to offer.

So, on my trip there this past weekend (my wife works there, I live in New York), we went in search of... underground eats.

Armed only with a half-remembered e-mail description of a Vietnamese supermarket, we drove up Cleveland Avenue, hoping that said store would offer banh mi. Eventually, at one of the strip malls in the Cleveland-Innis area, we spotted Asia Supermarket, which turned out to be a huge store offering not only Vietnamese and other Asian groceries but also a wide variety of African and Caribbean products (e.g., jerk marinades, instant fufu). Alas, we didn't see any banh mi, so I asked a checkout clerk in my broken Vietnamese if they had any. Several puzzled minutes later, he figured out what I was looking for and directed us to a refrigerator full of premade sandwiches. Not exactly the freshly toasted, meat-and-veggie-filled baguette I was hoping for.... Still, I can't say it was the worst banh mi I ever had—there was that time in Cambodia when the filling fell out all over my pants....

Back on the road, we hadn't gone more than a mile when I screamed, "Taqueria!" There, parked on the side of the road, was a truck-cum-taco stand. Like a pair of canines, we circled the block three times before parking. Man, those tacos were good! The Texas-born, Oklahoma-raised, mustachioed owner serves up tacos al pastor (marinated pork), as well as steak, carnitas (a kind of roast pork), chicken, and a couple of other varieties (you can get any of these in taco or torta form, $1.25 and $5 respectively). The al pastor was a respectable version, double-wrapped in tortillas, with radishes, cucumbers, onions, cilantro, limes, and two salsas for garnish. The steak rocked, but the carnitas were a little bland. Oh, and huge cups of horchata and tamarindo to drink.... This truck, one of supposedly many popping up all over town (though mostly on the west side), is open from 10am to 11pm—you know what that means: Tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Onward! Further up Cleveland Avenue is Saigon Cafe, right next to another Vietnamese supermarket. The cold, flavorless banh mi we'd devoured earlier hadn't really done it for us, so we walked in.... to a pool hall. Empty but for a handful of young men playing billiards, the Saigon Cafe has a few dining tables up front, a handwritten menu near the cash register, and the cutest 8-year-old girl you've ever met taking food orders for her mother. Again, my lack of facility with the Vietnamese language had everyone perplexed, and my wife and I wondered why I didn't just try speaking English. This was Columbus, after all. Sadly, once you've confused someone in Vietnamese, English only leaves them more confounded. Somehow, we requested one banh mi ("In English, I call it ham," the girl's mother explained, "but to Vietnamese I call it 'thit [meat] viet nam'") and two ice coffees to go.

If you do wind up at Cafe Saigon, don't expect to get out of there quickly. Apparently, they had to make everything for the sandwich from scratch—we were there for 15 minutes explaining my embarrassingly bad language skills before the single banh mi was done. By this point, I was sweating and redfaced.

I'd love to tell you how the sandwich was, but I ended up not taking a single bite. After the tacos, the bad banh mi, the horchata, and the coffee, another sandwich was too much. Oh well, it couldn't have been worse than the refrigerated nightmare.

Onward! We continued up Cleveland Avenue, passing Taariq, which bills itself simply as an "African restaurant." How mysterious! We'll have to try it next time....

Next we headed across Henderson to Kenny Road, where a Japanese strip mall is reputed to live. And it does! There's not only a well-hyped eatery, Restaurant Japan; the mall has a Japanese grocery store, a Japanese video-rental place, and TWO bakeries. We sit down at the nicer one (what's it called? I don't remember) and order an apricot danish (yummy!) and a baked roll with curry and a hard-boiled egg inside (strangely yummy!). The full-on restaurant will have to wait, however....

Stuffed and sleepy, we drive home.... Hm, there's a roadside rib shack in Linden, and the East and West Cafe, which purports to have Vietnamese and American food... What doesn't Cleveland Avenue have?!?

(I don't know if any of this is useful to you, but I'm just so happy to have discovered these places that I had to write them up—they make my monthly visits to the Midwest a little more exciting. (Of course, it's nice to see my wife, but it's even nicer when we can go eat somewhere new and, to us, strange.))

—Matt

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