As cultural diversity in the Fox Cities increases, so do adventures for diners
By Sean P. Johnson
Kim Olson considers herself a culinary adventurer.
She has always enjoyed visiting new restaurants and sampling exotic dishes, she says. But, she does admit having doubts when it came to trying the eel offered by one of her favorite Asian restaurants.
Those doubts vanished with the first bite. “I loved it. It was presented so beautifully,” says Olson, who, when not sampling various ethnic cuisines, teaches kindergarten in the Oshkosh schools. “I’ve always been an adventurous eater.”
If variety is the spice of life, there is plenty of adventure to be had in the Fox Cities.
As the cultural face of the region has evolved during the past two decades, the diversity of dining options has changed with it. Since the 2000 census, Wisconsin has seen its ethnic population grow by nearly 10 percent, according to U.S. Census Data. The Fox Cities has seen a similar change, with more than 10 percent of the local population considered ethnic—mostly Hispanic and Asian—up from 6 percent in 2000.
Twenty years ago, the region’s dining scene was a reflection of its German and European heritage. Ethnic restaurants have always been present, though many featured Americanized versions of the cuisine, such as Tex-Mex.
While there is nothing wrong with Tex-Mex, ethnic restaurants in the Fox Cities today offer diners a selection of authentic and regional cuisines as varied as the different regions of the globe that influenced them.
Asian cuisine is no longer lumped together under a generic heading. Instead, a wide variety of influences such as Thai, Lao and Vietnamese now compliment regional Chinese dishes such as Mandarin. Mexican cuisine now includes varieties such as Puebla and Oaxaca with family recipes that can be dated in centuries.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors have also joined the mix. You can still get Tex-Mex if that’s your desire.
“Sometimes it takes 10 to 15 years for these trends to find the way to Wisconsin,” says Mike Whiting, who owns and operates Mi Casa Mexican Grill in Appleton with his wife Maria.
“The increased cultural diversity is now making itself known here.”
It’s not just the restaurant offerings that have changed, says Whiting. The growing diversity in the population has made people more accepting of different cultures and willing to try new things—including many varieties of traditional ethnic cuisine.
At Mi Casa, diners can sample a family Mole sauce that dates back to the 1500s, or try a Mexican soup, which eats like a meal complete with rice and tortillas.
It seems the palate is diversifying right along with the population.
At Basil Café, which features traditional cuisine from several Asian cultures, including Thai and Vietnamese dishes, there is a growing number of new diners coming in the door looking for an ethnic culinary adventure, says Larry Chomsisengphet, the restaurant’s general manager.
“You have folks who might only know Asian cuisine through buffets or westernized versions of the food,” Chomsisengphet says. “We are explaining things to them. We want to be able to introduce them to the food we eat and make it for a broader audience.”
It can be a challenge at first, says Chomsisengphet. By using some tried and true first-timer recommendations, they have won a
following without compromising the cuisine they offer. A good choice for a first time visitor, he says, is the Bahn Xeo, or Vietnamese crepe.
“We think it’s better to stay traditional,” he says.
Staying traditional has been an important part of what has made Apollon Fine Dining successful for many years, including those early years when Fox Cities diners were less adventurous, says Craig Tersha, the general manager for the restaurant that has offered a multitude of traditional Mediterranean dishes for two decades.
“We’ve always done it the authentic way,” Tersha says.
Sometimes it still takes some convincing, particularly for new faces who haven’t experienced Mediterranean cuisine before.
“They are trying to figure out what they like,” he says. “There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s just food.”
Much like dealing with cultural changes in the population, coaxing folks to overcome stereotypes is a challenge restaurateurs face when it comes to attracting and converting new customers into regulars.
It’s a challenge the staff at Sai Ram often find themselves dealing with, says Neehar Chalasane, the Indian restaurant’s general manager. He says many diners come into the restaurant convinced all Indian food is extremely spicy.
While some dishes are quite spicy, he says most Indian cuisine, particularly some of the different regional dishes, are quite mild. Chalasane says the staff will help diners find a dish that suits their spice tolerance. One popular recommendation is Chicken Makkani, which includes a mild cream sauce.
Chalasane says Sai Ram has been seeing an increase in new clientele the past few years, and they want to help them have a good dining experience.
“We want to help them create a sense of adventure when they come in,” he says.
A culinary adventure was not on the menu 23 years ago when Jennie Baha and her husband Noor opened Queen Bee in downtown Appleton. Baha says some of dishes she’s added to her menu recently would not have passed muster in the restaurant’s early days.
As the region’s population changed, though, she also noticed both a changing palate and a willingness to try ethnic flavors. The time was right for Baha to add some traditional Afghani dishes to the menu. The results have proved quite positive, she says.
“We are starting to see people come in just to try it,” says Baha. “They like the variety.”
A popular dish she recommends is the Quarma Gousht, beef in a seasoned sauce.
Like her counterparts, Baha offers a range of dishes to satisfy a range of tastes, from the bold to the more timid culinary adventurer. She also offers a dish she describes as an Afhani Omelette that has become quite popular.
For Olson, variety means more culinary expeditions to enjoy, something she has not always thought would be possible in the Fox Cities.
“Ten years ago, I would have thought all Asian food was Chinese food,” Olson says. “Now we can have all the different flavors and varieties.”
Her personal favorite is Thai, and Basil Café is a regular stop. Still, she says she’s always up for something new.
That’s good news for the growing diversity of restaurateurs now calling the Fox Cities home.
“Good food is good food,” says Mi Casa’s Whiting. “It does not matter what kind of cuisine it is.”