Every time that I have been fortunate enough to travel internationally, I always look forward to the variety of flavors and cuisines that I’m likely to encounter. As someone who grew up in a rather homogenous setting, the stupendously vast bounty of another region is a true siren call. However, if you are not able or planning to travel abroad this summer, consider taking yourself on a culinary tour of the world. As fortune would have it, living in a diverse city on the rise gives ample opportunity for such a gustatory vacation.
My first encounter with Worcester via Clark University taught me that Worcester has a particularly vibrant Vietnamese community, which means several Vietnamese restaurants from which to choose. My mainstay through those years was Dalat (425 Park Avenue, Worcester), a surprisingly robust menu for the square footage. My friends and I would scarf down plate after plate of fresh rolls, and wash them down with avocado shakes. When I take my family there in my middle age, we more or less follow the same tried and true recipe, though I will occasionally sneak in a number 57 to round out the nutrition. Not far from Dalat, however there are two other Vietnamese restaurant options, each with its own particular focus and charm.
Pho Dakao (593 Park Avenue, Worcester) offers a more upscale atmosphere, with its wide-open dining room and big square windows that look directly onto one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. I stopped in for lunch today and had the pleasure of speaking with my server, Tung Nguyen. Nguyen has worked for Pho Dakao for four years and his sister, who helped him get the job, has been there even longer. During the lunch rush, Nguyen was attentive but unobtrusive and ready to make recommendations based on my dietary needs. Pho Dakao has a more eclectic menu, including a few more Americanized options including chicken wings and crab Rangoon. I ordered the Rangoon, along with a bowl of vermicelli served with roast pork and fried shrimp. The roast pork had a perfect umami glaze, and the shrimp was crisped to perfection. When I asked Nguyen what recommends Pho Dakao apart from the rest of the local Vietnamese haunts, he said “We are a bit pricier than our competition but you definitely get what you pay for.”
I continued my deep dive into Vietnamese cuisine by pursuing the next spot on my list, a spacious off-the-beaten path spot called Anh Thu II (91 Stafford St.). The tables inside the restaurant are set up in a cafeteria style manner, an effect which is only enhanced by a large salad-bar set up directly in front of the counter. Colorful jellos, and a sampling of exotic produce, some pickled, some fermented, were almost too much of a hurdle to clear before getting to the menu. Everything looked absolutely fascinating and potentially delicious. At the counter, I knew I was not prepared to have yet another meal so my attention settled on the beverages. I opted for a coconut shake and a taro shake, vowing to return as soon as possible to try whatever heaping bowl of spicy broth and hearty meats was being served at the only occupied table.
Moving to another continent altogether, I had the pleasure of visiting Richard Boateng’s Anokye Krom, a west African restaurant, featuring a lot of Ghanan specialties. Boateng himself hails from Ghana and recalls cooking for his friends and family when he first immigrated to the US from his home. “When I moved here I tried at first to be a cab driver, and took the test and everything, but it just wasn’t for me. Next thing, I was trying to figure out what I could do, and my friends all encouraged me to try cooking. I already cooked for all my friends so many of our dishes, that everyone just encouraged me to make it into something.”
And so, Boateng opened his first Anokye Krom location (687 Millbury St.) about 25 years ago. In 2020, his business was doing well enough that he was able to open a second location (21 Lovell St.), which has been operating for the past 3 years. “We have so many dishes just like we make them at home. There is an ongoing competition between Nigeria and Ghana about who’s got the best Jollof Rice, and Ghana has won many times, my rice has won 2 competitions. We also have Waakye rice and beans, which is very popular. We make a sauce from spicy shrimp and fish, and it is delicious.” Owning and operating two restaurants while raising a family, however, is not for the faint of heart. “It is very challenging for me right now, but my passion for my food and tradition keeps me going. My family is very supportive and without them, this would be much harder. However, if you’re looking for West African food, this is the place. You won’t find anything better.”
If you’re looking to sample something closer to home, you might want to give the new Cuban game in time a chance to impress. Masterminded by Julio Roque, the hot new Havana Nights (258 Park Ave.) restaurant is cooking up some fantastically authentic options.
Roque’s journey as restauranteur began while he was living in Florida for a few months: “During my stay down there, one of my family members, says come over lunch. Neighbor’s cooking for us. When I went to that lunch, with my wife, we sat down the best Cuban food in a very long time.”
Lazaro Curbelo Novelo is a Cuban immigrant who was working odd construction jobs while settling into his new country. He was also the man who made Roque’s memorable lunch. This chance meeting became a lively conversation, and then over the course of a few months became a business partnership. “I moved him up here. I knew that his food was something special. Something I hadn’t eaten since my mother used to cook for me. He makes his own bread and now we have the best Cuban Sandwiches in town, maybe even in Massachusetts.” The menu offers many traditional options including Ropa Vieja, Piccadillo, Fufus, and Tostones.
Even though they are still getting their sea legs, Roque has big plans to build on what’s already working and expand. When I try to gauge the secret behind what fuels him the most, he tells me unabashedly: “My wife is incredible. I could never do any of this without her and she really is just the reason that any of this is possible.”
In the coming weeks, Havana Nights will be introducing a brunch menu for weekend mornings. “I had an executive chef from Boston happen to come by. He drove by our sign, and stopped in because he loves Cuban cuisine. When he tried it he was like ‘this place is phenomenal. This is so authentic, so good.’ He is a real authority. He specializes in Latin fusions, and really wanted to be a part of this. This chef and Lazaro hit the kitchen like two masters of their trade. They put together the most amazing brunch menu. We launched it this weekend. Saturday and Sunday, and I’ve never seen so many clean plates.” The new weekend brunch offerings will add to what I would call Brunch Row, along with Altea’s, Stop Café, and Bagel Time.
There are, of course, times when one is looking not so much for a sit down experience but for something that travels well and still scratches the itch of traditional and home cooked. The Cozy (1094 Pleasant Street) in Tatnuck square opened its door without much fuss a few months ago, noticed only by the very local locals who spied the muted brown sign in the plaza. The woman behind the counter, Nicoleta Comoli, is a veritable tour de force. Unsurprising from a former cafeteria worker, she somehow does it all on her own. Using her own Turkish-Romanian background, Comoli imbues all of her baked goods with exactly the kind of warmth that is suggested by her bakery’s moniker. In particular, the spinach pie is a fan favorite, and sells out before anything else. However, there are countless eastern European goodies available to soften the blow, including mini baklavas, and nutella bombs.
No matter what you are craving, or which continent’s flavors you’d like to experience, the odds are ever in your favor here in our hometown. Thanks to nonprofits like the Food Hub, so many different folks are able to not just grab a seat at the table, but even build their own seats and their own tables. However, if you do manage to seek something that you cannot yet find in our vast culinary universe, consider creating it. As it has been shown over and over, if you build it, they will come.