My little sister and I regularly rock-paper-scissors to decide between Panda Express, Chipotle and Chick-Fil-A during the week while my kitchen is under construction. It’s only halfway through first semester, and I’m already tired of the predictable fast food joints we always seem to pick. To switch things up, I decided to scope out a few local, authentic restaurants to avoid the hordes of construction workers surrounding my refrigerator.
If there was only one type of food I could eat forever, it’d be Asian. Before going I was pumped to order some sesame or orange chicken, but I soon realized authentic Vietnamese food was different from my standard orders.
On the outside Vietnam Cafe looks a little dingy with brown shutters and a faded red sign. I expected a more modern atmosphere since it’s in a developing area of Kansas City, located by KU Medical Center. Instead, the dark, beige-patterned wallpaper felt dated.
The menu was traditional Vietnamese boasting dishes like quail and rice noodle soup. My sister and I shared chicken stir-fry noodles along with fried rice. I was disappointed because I wanted sides, like miso soup or crab rangoon, but they only came in an entree.
I expected a steaming plate that would resemble lo mein. I was pleasantly surprised; it had all the same ingredients, but was homemade, without the soy-flavor I’m used to. The noodles were boiled and plain, so it seemed healthier than the greasy takeout, and the leftovers were devoured by the rest of my family. I felt like it was a little overpriced because entrees were $10 and we had to get an entire order of fried rice since they didn’t offer sides. Nonetheless, the food was better than takeout and the whole restaurant resembled sitting in a real Vietnam cafe.
Empanada Madness on Southwest Blvd. in downtown KC did not look promising from the outside. Yellow paint peeled from the building, metal bars covered the windows, and my younger sister and I were catcalled on the sidewalk — I was concerned for my safety. Once inside, I was immediately relieved by the bubbly waitresses and families crammed in the little restaurant after Sunday church.
My trusty Spanish 4 vocabulary helped me sort through the menu which offered “Arepas” and “Tequenos.” We ordered nachos and of course, empanadas. For those of you who are as uncultured as I learned during my visit that an empanada is fried dough stuffed with either chicken or beef. After trying the flaky, buttery empanadas surpassed even my go-to tacos as one of my favorite foods. As for the heaping plate of crunchy nachos with extra cheese, grilled chicken, beans and fresh pico de gallo, they were gone within five minutes.
Even with every table filled, the family-run business brought our food out in fifteen minutes. The
cost is reasonable— about $8 a person, so it beats a Chipotle burrito in price. Even though it is a twenty-minute drive for me to go downtown, I will make the trip for empanadas as good as theirs and the friendly people.
I’m a picky eater, so I was worried that Elsa’s Ethiopian food was past my boundaries. Our waiter and his wife, a couple from Africa, own the restaurant. It was nearly empty at 7 p.m. with only one other couple, but the paintings of Ethiopian children hanging from the wall made it homey.
Although the quietness of Elsa’s didn’t bother me, the menu was a problem. The entrees dishes like “Gomen Besiga” and “Miser Wat” and the waiter’s thick accent made it hard for me to understand his explanation. He suggested popular dishes and we ended up with split peas, lentils, cabbage and chicken. Ten minutes later the platter came with no silverware or plates in sight; I didn’t have the first clue how to eat it.
The waiter showed us how to unroll the bread and use it to pick up the food, but I felt like I was eating baby food in a tortilla. When my mom resorted to a fork, our waiter rushed over to re-explain how to eat. I appreciated he wanted us to experience the culture, but I was ready to bolt so I could eat in peace.
The cabbage and chicken were mildly spiced and fresh, but I didn’t eat the lentils, because they were too spicy. My biggest complaint was with our waiter; he was pushy and came back five times during the meal. I felt I had a better taste of Ethiopian culture, but not one I plan to relive.