When I first heard there was a blog about taco trucks in Columbus, my initial reaction was that hardworking taco truck operators were being exploited by urban hipsters dining at ethnic eateries for kitsch value. Then I started reading some of the entries on the Taco Truck Columbus website and what I found were not people eating for a casual thrill or trying to rack up coolness points, but true food enthusiasts—knowledgeable, well-traveled individuals coming to the table with a collective background as diverse as the array of taco trucks spread across Columbus. There was no exploitation going on; in fact, the taco truck operators and their food were treated with the utmost respect. These were anything but pretentious bloggers; they loved food, they loved finding hidden treasures on wheels, and they wanted to share these gems with anyone who would read their blog.
Taco Truck Columbus was founded by Bethia Woolf, Jim Ellison, and Andy Dehus, who are also behind the Alt Eats Columbus website, a blog dedicated to the small, ethnic eateries tucked away in suburban strip malls, as well as to the ever-growing fleet of mobile vendors canvassing our city. Both of these sites have exposed me to a sub-section of the Columbus food community that I would have never explored on my own. The beauty of these sites is how accessible they’ve made these formally marginalized businesses to the general public; they have made going to a taco truck or food cart as commonplace and natural as driving through a fast food chain. Score one for the independent business owners of Columbus.
The experience gained from these two ventures has now culminated into Bethia Woolf’s Columbus Food Adventures, a company that offers guided food tours of Columbus. Not surprisingly, two of the flagship tours are the Taco Truck Tour and the Alt Eats Tour. The tours include a visit to some of the most delicious and interesting eating establishments Columbus has to offer, all by way of the distinctively decorated Columbus Food Adventures van. While on the tour, you not only benefit from the wealth of knowledge and cultural insight Bethia has to offer, but as her guest, you’re treated to a much broader experience than you may have had venturing out on your own.
I was fortunate enough to embark on an Alt Eats Tour last Saturday. The tour consisted of stops at the following businesses, each with a small sampling of the respective establishment’s fare:
Salam Market and Bakery, a Middle Eastern bakery and grocery, was the first stop. In addition to wonderful baked goods, of which we were able to sample many (including freshly made falafel and a tasty spinach and feta pastry), Salam also has a full-service market of dry goods and meats. (During our visit, they were processing a lamb.) As we were leaving, my wife, Christine, decided to purchase a bag of pita. The owner asked if we wanted fresh pita and took the bag to the back, returning with another bag, still warm from the oven.
Mi Li Cafe was the second stop on the tour. It is a Vietnamese restaurant whose banh mi sandwich Bethia described as “addictive.” The banh mi is a remnant of French colonialism in Southeast Asia—it consists of assorted vegetables, cilantro, pork (other variations have different meats), and pâté (Mi Li makes their own) on a French baguette. In my excitement and anticipation of the banh mi, I neglected to take pictures of the sandwich, for which I now apologize, as it was a thing of beauty. While my experience with the banh mi is relatively limited, I can say this was the best I’ve tasted. Add a little dab of chili sauce on top and it’s even better. (Is there anything chili sauce doesn’t make better?)
African Paradise is a Somali restaurant. Going in, I have to admit, I was a little skeptical; my last experience with Ethiopian fare was not my favorite. However, I soon found out that there is, indeed, a difference between Ethiopian and Somali food. While there is some crossover, Somalia was an Italian colony at one point in time, and the Italian influence is still present in their cuisine. My favorite dish was the KK, which was Somali bread cooked in a flavorful sauce. As this was being described to us, our first thought was soggy bread. But it was nothing like that; the bread’s consistency held throughout the cooking process and the result was a texture that resembled noodles. African Paradise had so many samples (and in large amounts), I had to force myself to limit what I ate—there were still two more stops on the tour.
Jeddo Kabab is, to Columbus Food Adventures’ knowledge, the only Persian restaurant in Columbus. As a general rule, I like any eatery that has “kabab” in the name; there’s nothing quite so delicious and universal than meat on a stick. The highlight for me was the kubideh, a kabab of ground, slightly spicy chicken. Had I not been so full, I could have easily eaten several of these—they were absolutely delicious. Also notable was the rice, a dish for which Persians take great pride. It was the most fluffy rice I have ever seen—no two grains even considered sticking together.
Panaderia Guadalupana is a Mexican bakery that makes over 30 different pastries daily, of which we were able to sample several. Not a big pastry fan in general (and quite full from all I had eaten at the previous stops), I still found myself going back for more. Panaderia Guadalupana features an Italian espresso bar, couches, comfy chairs, wi-fi, and plenty of space; its inviting atmosphere was the perfect note on which to end the tour.
Whereas Taco Truck Columbus and Alt Eats Columbus open the door onto a hidden world of tasty delights in Columbus, Columbus Food Adventures goes a step further: it takes you by the hand and walks you through that door, immersing you in an afternoon of ethnic culture and cuisine.