Exploring Grand Island's Cultures Through Food

by Brad Mellema
I took Spanish in college, figuring it might be useful if I ever had the opportunity to travel abroad. Little did I know that it would be useful right here, exploring the cultural buffet of Grand Island.

If you’re the type of person who, while traveling, likes to step beyond the well-trodden places to explore and develop a true sense of place, restaurants can be one of the best places to start.

Food is the front door through which we can begin to understand culture. The cosmopolitan flavor of Grand Island is very complex, and through random acts of circumstance, people have arrived. Our modern day city is made up of immigrants who have found their way here for the past one hundred and fifty years. German, Czech, and English; Irish, Greek, and Mexican; Cuban, Guatemalan, and Somali to name but a few have grown to call Grand Island home.

It is not breaking news that cities like Grand Island offer cuisine from around the world, but it certainly is worth noting that you can indulge in an amazing array of food and exotic cultures not with an international flight, but with a short drive.

While on the trail of local ethnic eateries, I have tasted incredible foods and made new friends along the way. Entering Azteca Market, downtown on Third Street, you’re hit with a splash of the color and sweet aroma from the in-house bakery. Owner Maria Garcia tells me that Azteca has grown from a small shop into a complete grocery with a small restaurant and large banquet hall, featuring fresh made dishes including my favorite, anything with pollo (chicken). While dining, you’ll soon notice this is a gathering place for people seeking the familiar foods of home for Grand Island’s growing Latino population.

You may be second-guessing whether or not you’re really in Grand Island.

What I now call fabulous 4th street offers an array of ethnic eateries and groceries including African, Cuban, Laotian, Mexican and more. I find myself returning to La Milagrosa Market, a small Cuban eatery that surely recalls what it is like in Miami or even Havana. Be prepared to listen to some Cuban music and spend some time with an afternoon cup of Cuban Coffee — slightly sweet with enough kick to keep you going well into the evening. My basic Spanish speaking skills were tested, but what a treat, talking to owners Abel and Zainab.

To the west of La Milagrosa Market down 4th street, you’ll find Vientiane, a Laotian and Thai restaurant that is gaining a reputation with lovers of curry and noodles. For me, it’s the Muay Thai, which manager/chef Alex Detsadachanh explains means kickboxing in Laotian. He said if you ask for it while in Laos, you’d be taken to a kickboxing match. It’s a spicy mix of shrimp, onions and carrots on lettuce and the name fits; I recommend it. Alex went on to describe that the menu includes a mixture of Thai and Laotian dishes and he takes great care to get it right. The lunch hour lines confirm that he has.

If the aroma of fresh-baked bread is what you seek, visit Napolis Italian restaurant located along Highway 281. Owner Florio Ramadoni emigrated from Italy to New Jersey in 1999 and started a restaurant there and later Kansas, then here in Grand Island. A fine wine list helps to complete the experience ­­— did I mention the bread?

You may be second-guessing whether or not you’re really in Grand Island.

The dynamic landscape of people and food in our city is always changing, with new places coming and going, along with the ebb and flow of our culture. If you take time to explore, you’ll get a complete international experience that may just have you second-guessing if you’re really in Grand Island.  Take some time and explore the many fine dining choices found here and experience what the ethnic buffet of Grand Island is all about.