Eating around the world: A guide to Grand Rapids' global cuisine scene

From Ethiopian and Korean to Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants, there are an almost endless number of culinary havens in and around Grand Rapids where you can explore the world, right in your own backyard.
Caribbean. Ethiopian. Korean. Mexican. Vietnamese. Turkish. Chinese. Indian. When it comes to food from around the globe, there are an almost endless number of restaurants in and around Grand Rapids where you can explore the world, right in your own backyard.

Old and new, these restaurants fill our cultural landscape, providing culinary homes for those looking to expand their palate or those searching for a familiar dish from a home country. And they are places where you’ll get to meet incredible neighbors from around the world — people whose lives began in countries thousands of miles away and who now call places like Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming home.

All of this is to say: leave your couch. Go on an adventure. Meet new people. Talk to them over delicious food. Raise your glass and say thank you to the people running these restaurants — to those who are immigrants, those who are refugees, those who bring the world right here, to West Michigan.

To help you on your journey, we’ve compiled an unofficial guide for how to eat around the world in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area. Because we’re fortunate to have so many restaurants here, we aren’t able to list every single amazing locale in our community — and we’d love to hear about your favorites not on this list in the comments below.

South of the border

We may be thousands of miles from Mexico and Central America, but don’t let our cold climate fool you: there are plenty of incredible options for mouth-watering cuisine from our neighbors to the south. Forget what you’ve learned after decades of brainwashing by certain fast-food “taco” restaurant franchises, forsake that liquid nacho cheese, and instead head for some local places that are serving up authentic Mexican and Central American dishes.

Located in a former drive-in restaurant on South Division Avenue, by St. Vincent de Paul, Taquería San José is frequently cited as one of the best taco spots in the city. It’s small (and cozy) inside, so you might not be able to get a table, especially when the place is packed on weekends, but you can snag a spot at the brightly colored picnic tables outside in the warmer months. Be sure to be adventurous here — you won’t regret it, especially with the corn tortillas loaded with such toppings as nopales, lengua, carne asada, tripe, and more. Or, head for the handmade gorditas and tamales and wash it all down with an ice cold horchata. Pro tip: call ahead to avoid what can be a bit of a wait.

Tacos El Cuñado

With four locations in the city, Tacos El Cuñado brings to Grand Rapids no-frills Mexican street food, as well as dishes that are popular in Costa Rica (where one of the owners, Mario Cascante, is from) and other Central and South American locales. Choose from such dishes as tacos, burritos, tortas, and tamales. Going for tacos? Be sure to take the advice Cascante gave to Rapid Growth: “If there is no cilantro and onion, it is not a taco.” (He also called tacos “quite possibly the perfect food,” and we couldn’t agree more.) As for salsa, follow Cascante’s rough guide: green sauce for chicken and pork; red sauce for steak and fish. No matter which Tacos El Cuñado you’re at — the Downtown Market, Bridge Street, Burton Street, or Grandville Avenue location — you can dive into a veritable feast (think: tacos, warm beans, rice, and more) for about $10 or less. Add a pineapple or hibiscus Jarritos soda, and you’ve just traveled south of the border on your lunch break.

If you’re looking to have a leisurely meal in a space that’s super family-friendly, head to Lindo Mexico on 28th Street. There, the chefs at the eatery owned by Gricelda Mata, who left Mexico for the U.S. at the age of 11, whip up a frenzy of authentic Mexican dishes, from bistec a la Mexicana to tamales, tostadas, and a whole lot more. The options seem almost endless at Lindo Mexico, which also does a great job of supporting local artists and features a wide array of menus, including appetizers, burritos, lunch, dinner, children’s options, dessert, liquor, and more.

For the salsa aficionado, be sure to check out La Vencedora on South Division, near Burton Street; their green salsa will transport you straight to Mexico. Plus, their handmade tortillas will have you coming back for more — and more...and more. Note: La Vencedora is open Friday through Sunday and is cash only.

You can get some seriously amazing traditional Mexican food at La Huasteca on Plainfield Avenue. Most everything is served with a ginormous grilled green onion, swoon. If you're really hungry, order up a torta. And be sure to give the cactus tacos a try.

Follow the scent of cumin, garlic and chile powder to an off-the-beaten-path eatery tucked away in La Lavandería Jalisco at the corner of Sutton Street and South Division Avenue: Tacos El Veracruz. The small taco joint draws crowds of people to line up around the washers and dryers to get their hands on the shop’s famous tacos that draw rave reviews by word of mouth. Make sure you say hello to Raul Aguilar, who moved to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico at the age of 19 and began his endeavors in the kitchen after being struck with homesickness and wanting a taste of something familiar. This led to friends trying his food — and begging for more. Now, people from all over the city are clamoring to get into the restaurant named after Aguilar’s hometown.

Not far from Tacos El Veracruz is Los 3 Mangos de Michoacan, a restaurant that’s located by Burton Street on South Division Avenue and run by Raul Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant, and Crystal Chen, a Chinese immigrant. The two friends, who met while they were both working in New York City, have partnered to run the spot that specializes in Mexican street food, including the coveted elote, salchipapas and tortas.

Flavors of the Caribbean

Be sure to travel down Burton Street SW for two not-to-be-missed venues that offer a taste of the Caribbean: Burton Meat Farm and Mi Casa Restaurante. Both Burton Meat Farm and Mi Casa Restaurante are owned by the Madera family — Eduardo and Rose Madera. Natives of the Dominican Republic, the Maderas came to Michigan 16 years ago, following 12 years of Eduardo working in a meat market in New York City. The two dreamed of running their own shop, and at Burton Meat Farm they’ve built an extremely loyal customer base who consistently heap praise on them for being one of the finest butcher shops in West Michigan — as well as for their variety of prepared meals, including rice with pigeon peas, menudo, tamales, beef fajitas, chicharróns, and more.

Burton Meat Farm

The Madera’s new restaurant, Mi Casa Restaurante, which is operated by their adult daughter, Rosibel Vialet, recently opened on Burton Street this past April — and the spot is already drawing rave reviews. It’s impossible to pass the restaurant without often noticing a long line of customers who are drawn in by the smells of home cooked chivo guisado (goat stew), platanitos (fried plantains), and more. In addition to Dominican dishes, the restaurant also offers Venezuelan and Central American cuisine.

Chez Olga

Situated in one of the city’s most unique buildings — the wooden one on Wealthy Street in Eastown that looks like it’s straight out of “Lord of the Rings” — Chez Olga is a veritable haven for Caribbean and Creole food. Make sure you don’t miss chatting with owner and chef Olga Benoit, who’s well known for her stellar cooking and a friendliness that quickly makes this place seem like a home away from home. After fleeing the Haitian civil war with her family in 1993, Benoit moved to Grand Rapids, where for 15 years she worked a variety of jobs, ranging from hotels and housekeeping to factories and retail. However, her passion has always been cooking, and friends convinced her to open Chez Olga — which she did in 2010. If you haven’t been before, take note: the spicy scale ranges from one to 10, so it’s a good call to ask them what will be the best level for you. We’re big fans of spicy, but even a level six can be a bit much for us. As for food, you can’t go wrong with any of the options, but some of our favorites are: accra (a fried root vegetable served with a homemade sweet and spicy strawberry dip) for an appetizer and the seafood gumbo or curry goat for entrees. Also, for vegetarians and vegans: Chez Olga has many an option for you.

Little Africa

Injera, injera, injera: Communal eating at Ethiopian restaurants

If you’ve never had Ethiopian food, now’s the time to change that — and embrace a spicier and more delicious world. We’re fortunate to have two really incredible spots serving up dishes brimming with tastes from the Eastern African country in Grand Rapids: Little Africa on Fulton Street in East Hills and GoJo Ethiopian Cuisine on Norwood in Eastown. Both spots offer vegan and vegetarian options, with Little Africa being an entirely vegetarian spot. Ethiopian food is meant to be eaten communally, so be sure to bring your friends and family along for a meal packed with flavor, including injera, Ethiopia’s sourdough-risen flatbread that you’ll use to soak up everything from siga wot (spiced beef) to gomen (spiced collard greens) and a whole lot more. The folks who work at Little Africa and GoJo are some of the nicest people you’ll meet in Grand Rapids — and they’ll explain anything you don’t understand about Ethiopian cuisine, so don’t hesitate to ask. Heads up: be sure to bring some green in your wallet to Little Africa; it’s a cash only venue.

Heading east

Walking into Emonae Korean BBQ on 28th Street for the first time is an olfactory and auditory thrill ride. Open the door and the aroma of still-cooking meats and veggies waft over you like a sweet summer breeze in Seoul. Meat crackles and sizzles on personal grills throughout the restaurant and the bubbly synthesized melodies of Korean pop music play overhead. If you’re new to Korean BBQ, it’s a unique experience. First, you’ll be given an assortment of about six side dishes, ranging from a simple fresh broccoli salad to some delightfully tangy and spicy kimchi. Your preferred choice of raw meat arrives at the table, commonly bulgogi (marinated beef) or perhaps samguypsa (pork belly), alongside some still-steaming rice and a few sauces. Slap that meat on the grill, cook to your liking and then mix it with rice, sauce, side dishes, and enjoy. Don’t feel like barbecue? Order the dolsot bibimbap, one of our favorites at Emonae that consists of rice, marinated rib eye, and fresh Korean veggies topped with an over-easy egg and hot sauce, all in a hot stone bowl brushed with sesame oil. With a wide range of spice level and flavors, as well as excellent options for vegetarians (the tofu stir-fry is massive and drool-worthy), Emonae has something for everyone to enjoy.

Pho Soc Trang

The Kim Nhung Supermarket complex on South Division is a gem of a shopping center, housing not only an amazing Asian supermarket full of fresh fruits, vegetables and other must-haves for Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but also a variety of restaurants you don’t want to miss. Go to Wei Wei Palace for dim sum (don’t miss the steamed barbecue pork buns), Pho Soc Trang for incredible Vietnamese food (pho! get the pho!), and Ly’s Sandwiches for banh mi — a French-inspired Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette.

Curry Kitchen

For some of the best Indian food the city has to offer, head to Curry Kitchen on Fulton. Here, you can nab an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet from 11am to 3pm for just $8.95 on weekdays. Quiet and and casual, the restaurant is a relaxing place to kick back and catch up with a friend over dishes like the ever-popular butter chicken — marinated, cubed chicken that’s grilled in a tandoor oven and served in a mild curry butter sauce. Scoop it up with your fresh naan bread. When it comes to spice levels, the cooks are used to varying preferences, so the dishes can range from extremely mild to a call-the-fire-department kind of heat. If you head to Curry Kitchen for dinner, be sure to order some veggie samosas, paneer tikka masala or lamb kebabs.

When it comes to Turkish food, you’re going to want to hop in the car and head to Ada for Zeytin Turkish, the area’s only Turkish restaurant that was opened by owner Ufuk Turan in 2006. A beautifully decorated space filled with colorful paintings and rug cushions in the booths, this eatery keeps on drawing crowds with its lamb, beef and chicken shish kebabs (all marinated at least eight hours before being served); hummus; stuffed eggplant; and more. Soak it all in with a cocktail (the Turkish sunset is a refreshing option, especially as the months march toward summer), and be sure to leave room for desert — you don’t want to miss the baklava or the sutlac (rice pudding).

The Sovengard

Eclectic European

One of Grand Rapids’ newest restaurants, The Sovengard is already one of the city’s most popular spots. While that can translate to long lines, it’s definitely worth the wait to stake out a seat at the Bridge Street locale on Grand Rapids’ west side. Featuring dishes inspired by both Scandinavia and the Midwest, The Sovengard serves up pieces of art that are the plates of food from Chef Patrick Conrade’s menu featuring an assortment of pickled, smoked, braised, and fried delights. The chicken liver paté is outrageously good, and you can’t leave without trying the pork shoulder (get it with a sour beer) or the cured and smoked duck breast smorrebrod (a type of open-faced sandwich) alongside a fruity, herbaceous Aquavit cocktail. Interesting fact: Conrade, who lives on the west side, used to be the head chef at the Meyer May House, the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Heritage Hill. Plus, he also worked at the Electric Cheetah in Eastown and assisted with the opening of The Old Goat in Alger Heights.

You’ve probably driven by this place a million times — but now it’s time to stop and go into Bosna Express on 28th Street, off 131. Opened in 2000 by Damir Duratovic, this cozy Bosnian restaurant has everything from what many a customer calls the best gyros in town (we say go for the spicy feta gyro) to Cevapi, Bosnian sausages that are made on the premises daily. Wash it all down with one of their many craft beers or a Bosnian soda.

It hardly needs to be said that Comstock Park’s Amore Trattoria Italiana is one of the best Italian restaurants in the area. Wife and husband team Jenna and Maurizio Arcidiacono (Maurizio was born in Busto Arsizio, Italy) own the eatery where Italian speakers are encouraged to show off their language skills — and even try to stump Maurizio with a dialect. When you’re not talking to the owners, you’ll definitely be eating as much as you can. While all of the options are mouth-wateringly exquisite, branch out and try the pappardelle entree — a wide, flat herb-infused pasta with wild boar and porcini mushroom sauce. If you really can’t get enough of the food there, you can take your love of all things Italian by going on a culinary tour of Italy led by Chef Jenna.

For those with a penchant for brews, head to the west side’s Harmony Hall, a restaurant that’s inspired by German beer halls and serves up German and Eastern European fare: pretzels, sausages that come from the restaurant’s in-house butchery program, and, of course, plenty of beer. Located in a building that, at the turn of the 20th century, was home to the Rauser Quality Sausage Factory, opened by a German immigrant named John Rauser, the expansive space provides plenty of room for its many events, from live music to fundraisers.

Let us know if you have a favorite spot that's not included here; we'd love to hear about it in the comments below!

With additional reporting by Joel Ruberg

Photography by Adam Bird

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