If you've read a national food magazine lately, you might know that the Triangle is tops for Mexican food. And we have our favorite Chinese and Indian spots. But do you know where to go for, say, a Venezuelan-style hot dog? An Afghani kebab? A Singaporean noodle dish? Here are a few of our picks for the best in lesser-known ethnic cuisines:
Dogs & Something Else
13200 New Falls of the Neuse Road • Raleigh • 919-554-1717
In the spanking new stripmallandia of Northeast Raleigh, Dogs' nondescript exterior and somewhat awkward name (Is it a pet shop?) hide one of the Triangle's niftier new culinary delights. The specialty at this fast food-style joint is Venezuelan street food, which raises the ordinary hot dog to wild heights. Try the Venezuelan-style dog, a foot-long gut-buster topped with fried potato sticks, slaw and both red and green mayo. They're darn tasty, but you can skip them in favor of rarer delicacies: morcilla (blood sausage), empanadas, chicken- or beef-stuffed arepas and tostones (fried green plantains served with sour cream). My favorite item is the cachapa, a sweet-corn pancake swollen with melted white cheese, its weight nearly cracking the Styrofoam plate. Wash it down with Dogs' killer variety of hard-to-find Latin American soft drinks: Peru's Inca Kola, Cuba's Ironbeer and a bittersweet Materva, a soda made with yerba mate, a tea popular in Argentina and Uruguay.
Mawa's Taste of Africa
152 Morrisville Square Way • Morrisville • 919-321-8360
For many of us, even the most dedicated foodies, our experience with African cuisine tends to be limited to Moroccan and Ethiopian. Those are both excellent choices, but go ahead and try Senegalese yassa chicken (ginger-marinated chicken breast served over couscous), a sweet-savory Kenyan curry served over fufu (mashed yam), Gambian goat and peanut goulash or Congolese okra stew.
In a cozy, orange-painted Morrisville storefront, Mawa's Taste of Africa serves dishes from more than a dozen African countries, from North African tagines (sweet-sour stews) to South African spicy piri-piri chicken wings. Start things off with the crispy, golden-fried accara (black-eyed pea fritters served with sweet onion relish); choose from a chicken-, goat-, lamb-, seafood- or vegetable-based main dish, then finish with one of Mawa's unusual ice creams; try the vanilla with baobab pulp. With its vaguely citrusy flavor, which also contains hints of bubblegum, it's an unusual flavor. And that's the point of trying new cuisines, isn't it?
410 Market St. • Chapel Hill • 919-933-1138
Perched at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore is the crossroads of Southeast Asia, a melding of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, with a heavy European influence due to years as a British colony and global trading post. So it's not surprising that many of the dishes at Southern Village's elegant Merlion are recognizable even to those who have never had official Singaporean cuisine before. The menu includes roti prata, a Singaporean staple of flatbread served with various curries, which South Indian food aficionados will readily recognize as the descendent of the Indian roti. Try the Chinese-inflected Hainanese chicken rice, a gingery steamed chicken dish which is as comforting to Singaporeans as mac 'n' cheese is to Southerners. Char Kway Teow, a rich, eggy noodle dish studded with tiny shrimp, is a mainstay of Singapore's many outdoor food markets and one of this writer's very favorite indulgences.
Fans of fresh spring rolls will dig the popiah, an appetizer of softened jicama and bean sprouts rolled in a crepe-like wrapper. A word of advice: avoid the temptation to try the restaurant's many pan-Asian offerings (pad thai, green curry, Chinese-style beef) and stick with the Singaporean specialties.
300 E. Edenton St. • Raleigh • 919-828-5994
Two words: churrasco steak. Two more words: chimichurri sauce. Argentineans know how to do steak: The nation's citizens eat more beef than any country, nearly twice as much as the runner-up—the U.S. So when you're looking for your red meat fix, the buck stops aqui. Though nothing about this homey Raleigh café's name or decor suggests its cuisine's ethnic origins, Oakwood's menu is evenly split between Cuban and Argentinean cuisines. Since Cuban food is relatively easy to come by in the Triangle, I like to focus on the Argentinean side. Namely the steak. Hand-cut and cooked to order with a side of herby chimichurri sauce, it's as salty, savory and deeply mineral-tasting as any piece of meat that has crossed your lips. The rich, golden empanadas are fabulous as well, stuffed with beef, chicken or spinach and cheese. Beef or chicken milanesa—thin cutlets of meat breaded and fried—are another Argentinean classic. Pasta dishes, reflecting the owner's Italian-Argentinean background, round out the menu. If you have the slightest bit of room for a slab of Oakwood's bread pudding or tres leches cake afterward, you're a better (wo)man than I.
914 Kildaire Farm Road • Cary • 919-439-0402
For the uninitiated, think of Afghani food as the synthesis of North Indian and North African cuisines: rich sweet-sour stews, hearty flatbreads, intensely spiced rice pilafs studded with raisins and carrots. But instead of imagining it, head to Cary's Unaabi Grill and try it for yourself. Unaabi, which has done its best to transform an old Pizza Hut space into an exotic retreat, is one of only two Afghani restaurants in the Triangle (the other is the newly reborn Bread & Kebab on West Main Street in Durham). Start with the bolanee pumpkin, a crispy fried turnover that resembles a Chinese wonton stuffed with sweet mashed pumpkin. Pumpkin is a recurring theme in Afghani cuisine; you'll find spiced pumpkin recurring as a vegetarian main and a side dish. Try it, and you'll wonder why Americans don't make better use of the sweet orange squash. The menu is heavy on chicken and lamb kebabs, but I'm happy to skip those in favor of the more interesting specialties: aushak (dumplings in yogurt sauce with ground beef); chicken naringe (chicken delicately spiced with orange peel and pistachio); Palau Baudinjan (highly spiced eggplant served over rice). Such rich, heavy cuisine is perfect for fall. A cup of spicy Afghani green tea for dessert will help you digest.
The Palace International
1104 Broad St. • Durham • 919-416-4922
To eat at The Palace International, prepare to learn an entirely new culinary vocabulary. There's kachumbari, a tangy tomato and onion salsa; ugali, the East African take on grits; maharagwe, a stew of kidney beans in coconut milk; and mandazi, a donut-like fried bread popular in Kenya. Since the menu has little in the way of a glossary, you'll have to ask your server for translation, which only enhances the experience.
Friendly co-owner Caren Ochola, a native of Kenya, is happy to explain or recommend menu items. Try the curry goat with Kenyan spices served over ugali, the sweet potatoes in peanut butter sauce or the gingery, fork-tender oxtail. I highly recommend a side of chapatis to scoop up your food. Those familiar with the Indian version of these flatbreads will find the Kenyan take even more tender and buttery. Lunches are casual, with local Durham businesspeople chatting over orders of Nairobian fish wraps or blackened chicken salad, while dinner in the warm orange-and-brown dining room is also relaxed. Kick back after your meal with a leisurely cup of creamy, sweet-spicy chai.