I’ve spent a couple of decades being transported by dining experiences. Well, really, my whole life, whether it’s a macaron that brings me back to a trip to Paris or a Moroccan tagine that ferries me to a Northern African country I have only visited in my mind. In these times when we’re not doing much actual, physical travel, dining and broadening our culinary scope is an easy way to experience international cultures. As a nice plus, these cuisines often lend themselves well to takeout. So let me be your Rick Steves of carryout and take you on a gastronomic staycation.
LIKE MANY AMERICAN KIDS in the 1970s and ’80s, I grew up eating tacos that started with a pound of ground beef combined with the contents of an envelope of taco seasoning. Toppings were centered around one thing – cheese, preferably cheddar. This was pop culture America. Decades later, eating my first street taco – pork topped with just cilantro and raw onion – was a revelation. But the cuisines of Latin America include far more than Mexican food, of course. Here are a couple ways to get an authentic sampling.
6207 W. National Ave., West Allis, 414-321-5775
This Stallis jewel is a bit of sleeper, co- owned by Citlali Mendieta-Ramos, whose late father, José, operated a trailblazing gourmet Mexican restaurant on the South Side from the late 1990s to 2006 called El Rey Sol. Citlali (along with her chef husband, Nicolas) brings her father’s passion for Latin foods to Antigua in an expansive way, with Colombian pork- cheese empanadas, Cuban fried plantains, Argentinian grilled steak with chimichurri sauce and Ecuadorian shrimp in creamy coconut milk/peanut sauce.
9039 W. National Ave., West Allis, 414-327-1600
Peruvian cuisine is a blend like no other. It includes influences from indigenous tribes such as the Inca, and settlers from Europe (Spain), Asia and Africa. Of course, Peruvians use ingredients that are staples of their land – potatoes, corn, beans and different kinds of tubers. Almost 9-year-old Chef Paz, helmed by Peru native Maritza Paz, represents the culture well with her combination of homey dishes, including mixed seafood ceviche, lomo saltado (a sirloin stir-fry), Inka paella (addition of tomato and a smidge of Parmesan cheese), and tender arroz con pollo (chicken with rice).
EAST & SOUTHEAST ASIA
PERHAPS NO CUISINE is more diverse than those from this sprawling continent – spanning the noodle and rice dishes of China to the curries and soups of Southeast Asia, sushi and teriyaki of Japan, marinated beef with kimchi of Korea and so much more. When I was a kid, I went through a phase when there was no more perfect food than a Chinese egg roll. I loved biting through the crisp fried wrapper to the warm minced cabbage and pork inside. In adulthood, that mantle has been taken by the dumpling – of any shape, and pan-fried, steamed or filled with soup. And that’s a mere fraction of what you can explore.
1609 E. North Ave., 414-273-6688
You could free-fall into the menu (drawing from all over mainland China) at this dazzling little East Sider and easily find something great. That ranges from wonderfully crispy fried pork dumplings to flaky, pastry-like scallion pancakes, spicy Szechuan string beans to thick bacon-like double-cooked pork belly, spicy poached chile fish to tender stir-fried cumin beef.
3900 W. Brown Deer Rd., Brown Deer, 414-362-4264
This North Shore haunt is spot-on with nuances – gently prepared dishes high on aroma and spice but not too much heat (unless you ask for it). The tom kha gai (Thai coconut soup) is exquisitely creamy, the pla muk tod (fried squid) crisp and light, the waterfall beef salad delicate yet fiery, and the massamun curry creamy and comforting.
6509 S. 27th St., Franklin, 414-301-4126
Lao cuisine is best known for three things – sticky rice, laab (a fragrant meat salad) and the green papaya dish known as som tam. Sweet Basil, which opened in spring 2020, has populated its menu with many Lao specialties, including wonderful pork sausage, a vibrant version of laab (with chiles, scallions and fresh mint) and a worthy papaya salad served with vermicelli noodles, cabbage and pork rinds.
YEARS AGO, I cruised down to Chicago’s Devon Avenue and explored the Indian shops in that neighborhood, everything from a South Indian restaurant serving the biggest, most delicious potato-filled dosa (pancakes) I’d ever had to an Indian grocery store where I stocked up on bags of various dal and all the spices needed to fill my own spice box at home. Turmeric, cumin, cardamom and black mustard seeds included. This is what I love about Indian food – the breadth of spices and fusion of flavors.
711 W. Mitchell St., 414-672-7878
This South Side storefront serves the best Indian and Pakistani food in the area, including crisp, vegetable-filled, fried samosa pastries, buttery naan baked in the tandoor oven, tender mutton in an aromatic yogurt sauce called korma, and lahori charga, which is succulent Pakistani deep-fried chicken.