Steve Kaufman: Every great ethnic restaurant in Louisville comes with an exotic story
Remarkable, yet unremarked upon in this small Southern city.
But did you ever wonder why we have Malaysian, Iranian and Nuevo Pan Latino?
It’s become a cliché by now to talk about what an extraordinary restaurant city Louisville is. But to me, the amazing part isn’t only the talent of the chefs. It’s also the variety of cuisines.
I moved here from Cincinnati, a larger northern city with better shopping and two major league teams.
But this is not about cities and their sports. It’s about cities and their restaurants. And Cincinnati showed its big-city sophistication by letting La Maisonette, one of the country’s oldest four-star restaurants, close down.
And then Jean Robert de Cavel, a chef from La Maisonette, opened his own French restaurant, Pigall’s, which earned four stars.
And it had to close.
Maybe Cincinnati deserves its major league teams and its Saks Fifth Avenue, but it let two four-star French restaurants close their doors because people just wouldn’t go downtown to eat. Unforgivable!
Don’t ever tell me about how Cincinnati is the big city and poor little ole Louisville is just the Southern country cousin.
The country cousin is not only home to some magnificent classic European-style restaurants (211 Clover Lane, Bistro Le Relais, Corbett’s, An American Place. Vincenzo’s) and American/Southern restaurants (Limestone, Bourbon’s Bistro, Lily’s Bistro, Buck’s, Jack Fry’s, 610 Magnolia), but also has an extraordinary variety of cuisines from all over the world.
We have Cuban, Argentine, Mayan, Persian, Vietnamese (several), Thai (several), Malaysian, Pacific Rim and “nuevo pan Latino.” As Butch said to Sundance (and the other way around), “who are those guys?”
Coco Tran, who founded Egg Roll Machine and Café Mimosa and owns Zen Garden on Frankfort Avenue, might be the real godmother of Southeast Asian cuisine in Louisville. Her nephews are Steven and Michael Ton (Basa), whose father was an officer in the South Vietnamese army on the Communist regime’s “to-be-killed” list.
The family packed onto a fishing boat that was picked up by a Japanese ocean liner. They were taken to Guam and eventually settled in Texas City, Texas, where the family ran a Vietnamese restaurant.
Michael used the experience to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. Steven went to the University of Massachusetts to study biology and pre-med before deciding restaurants were in his blood, too. He came to Louisville to help open Proof on Main for the Myriad Restaurant Group.
The Brothers Ton opened Basa in 2007 and have since added Doc Crow’s and La Coop with Brett Davis.
Phat T. Lee (Café Mimosa) was put on a fishing boat out of Saigon by his parents in 1980, along with a sister and two brothers. They spent a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before Catholic Charities sponsored their relocation to Louisville.
“We had $2 among the four of us,” T. recalled. “I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and slippers. All the stuff I owned was in a paper bag.”
He got into the restaurant business by washing dishes at the Oriental House while in high school, then waited tables at Emperor of China. In 1997, he bought Café Mimosa from Coco Tran.
Alex Lam (Vietnam Kitchen) was a South Vietnamese naval officer who fled Saigon in a fishing boat with 147 people on board. He drifted for five days on the China Sea and spent four years in Hong Kong before coming to Louisville in 1980.
He studied English and dreamed of owning his own business. He and wife Kim saved enough money to open the out-of-the-way but wildly popular Vietnam Kitchen in 1993.
“At first, Americans thought all Asian cooking was Chinese food,” Lam says. “We’ve had to educate them.”
He found he preferred his boyhood passion of cooking to the dry discipline of engineering. So with no formal culinary training, he started August Moon in 1987. And he helped change the face of Chinese food in Louisville.
When he began, he once told me, “Chinese food” generally meant “chop suey” to the locals. He says he got a lot of requests for fried rice, sweet and sour chicken and “where’s the buffet?”
Asiatique, which he opened in 1994, is closer to the cuisine Looi grew up with in Malaysia, a combo platter of Malay, British, Arabic, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Portuguese influences.
Majid Ghavami (Saffron) came here from his native Iran to study business, but worked at the iconic Casa Grisanti to earn some money and loved the restaurant business. (That, by the way, is the same journey taken by Mehrzad Sharbaiani of Z’s Steakhouse and Z’s Fusion.)
Ghavami started Saffron on West Market Street in 2001 (calling it “Persian” because “Iranian” has not been a popular designation in the U.S. since the hostage-taking of 1979).
He sold Saffron in 2010, when he opened Majid’s at Chenoweth Square in St. Matthews. Reza Dabbagh bought the restaurant and retained Ghavami’s chef Hamid Alamdari.
Cuban. In Cuba, Marcos Lorenzo (Havana Rumba, Mojito) was a civil engineer. In the U.S., he was just another immigrant who spoke little English. Lawn care and restaurant work were his two outlets. He chose restaurant work.
He opened Havana Rumba in 2004 with his brother-in-law, Fernando Martinez, and now operates three restaurants: the two insanely popular Havana Rumba locations, in St. Matthews and Middletown, and Mojito in Holiday Manor. Not many U.S. cities this size have great Cuban food, let alone three restaurants serving it.
Argentine. Francisco Elbl came to Louisville to study medicine. He stayed to open his medical practice because the climate reminded him of his native Buenos Aires. His son, Francisco (Frank), earned a business degree at Bellarmine, then managed the books for the old Club Grotto, also working in the kitchen and managing the front of the house.
In 2001, Frank and brother Federico (Palermo Viejo) took over the old Dedden’s Highland Fling on Bardstown Road and named their new Argentine restaurant after their father’s boyhood Buenos Aires neighborhood. Louisville immediately took to their slow-cooked meats on charcoal grills. “It’s country cooking,” said Frank, “just from another country.”
Mayan. Mexican food is more than chips, salsa and margaritas. When Bruce Ucán (Mayan Café) came to Louisville from the Yucatan Peninsula, he brought the earthy, complex tastes of his native cuisine – long-stewed vegetables, surprising seasons and flavors and lots of meats. He’s also a devotee of local producers.
Ucán was working at a hotel restaurant in touristy Cancun when he met a Louisville girl and followed her here. He put in time at Captain’s Quarters, Masterson’s and Timothy’s, also buying assorted kitchen equipment and storing it in his garage.
In 1996, he began selling tacos out of a truck at Louisville construction sites. After a year, he had enough money to open Mayan Gypsy on East Market Street. Mayan Café followed, in 2006. Many professional chefs in town – and a great many non-professionals, as well – regard it as their favorite Louisville restaurant.
Nuevo Pan Latino. The innovative pan-Caribbean cuisine of Anthony Lamas (Seviche) is a product of his mixed heritage – California-born to a Puerto Rican father and Spanish-Mexican mother. His “nuevo pan Latino” food is a blending of the cuisines he grew up with – Mexican, Caribbean, South American and Spanish – with his modern interpretations.
Working in the kitchen of Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego, “I learned that Latin food could be more than tacos, beans and rice,” Lamas said.
At Coronado Bay, he also met a Louisville girl who took him home to meet her parents. “I ate at five restaurants – Dietrich’s, La Paloma, the English Grill, Lynn’s Paradise Café and Lilly’s – and was blown away by the possibilities here,” he said. He was right, there was a culinary revolution going on. He became a key part of that revolution.
He came to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering and was working his way through graduate school at Bravo Pitino in Lexington. When Bravo Pitino opened in Louisville, Ramsi was offered a part-ownership.
He opened Ramsi’s in 1994. Though the restaurant has frequently won Best Middle Eastern Restaurant awards, Kamar insists he serves “American food.” “What is America these days,” he asks, “if not a mixture of cultures?”
It certainly is in all the international cuisines our city has learned to love.