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    Eat & Swig

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    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar

    Past the Watterson, heading south on Preston Highway, the look is pure, grade-A American sprawl — auto parts, Papa John’s, dollar stores, liquor shops, a tarot reading here, a martial-arts studio there, sidewalks that disappear and reappear at random. It seems like one could zip up the busy stretch, right down the median, and transplant it to any town that has multiplied beyond a downtown square. But what a shame that would be. Surprises lie in them strip malls, glimpses into cultures and flavors carried to Kentucky by this city’s ever-growing foreign-born population.


    Photo: A visit to the Viet Hoa Food Market will transport you to another world.

    A few months ago, I wound up at El Molcajete Ky on Preston Highway. The weather was cold and gray and I was stubbornly questing for seafood soup. That day, my curiosity about Preston peaked. After my meal (the soup did indeed warm my bones), I happened to spot one of my favorite chefs, Bruce Ucan of Mayan Cafe, leaving the mammoth Supermercado Guanajuato with dried chilies and produce in his bags, heading straight for Taqueria La Mexicana, a tiny taco shop that shares a parking lot with the market and neighbors a probation and parole office. Later, Ucan tells me his vice — lengua tacos (cow tongue). The meat takes a long time to cook well, he says. The tacos are simple, with a handful-sized portion of meat, lettuce, onions and cilantro in a tortilla, plastic cups of salsa on the side. “But they’re well-seasoned,” Ucan says. “Small, but good.” Two tacos cost about $4. And for those who aren’t fans of tongue, traditional meat is on the menu. My pick: chicken.


    Photo: Lengua and chicken tacos at La Taqueria Mexicana.

    Alvin Lin, who owns Joy Luck, a Taiwanese restaurant with two Louisville locations, frequents Taqueria La Mexicana too. He’s in the neighborhood at least once a week, stocking up at Preston Highway’s Viet Hoa Food Market. “I don’t go to Kroger to buy Asian products because it’s, like, ramen, what Americans think is Asian,” Lin says. “If I need authentic I go to Viet Hoa.” For anyone who does rely on Kroger, Viet Hoa is a marvel. Just take the produce section: giant, watermelon-sized jackfruits that look like medieval weaponry, piles of bok choy, fresh lychee fruit. Wander the six aisles and stare at dozens of live tilapia sardined into shallow waters, gumming their windowed display. Inhale curious spices and gaze at salted seaweed that has traveled from unknown waters to unremarkable plastic bins.


    Photo: Tilapia at Viet Hoa Food Market

    Lin has lived in many places, including the cultural kaleidoscope that is Los Angeles. While Louisville’s ethnic corners may pale in comparison, Lin says they’re fundamental. “To me, ethnic food represents the soul of the city. We can go to Chicago; we can go to New York; we can go to San Francisco or, you know, L.A., and you’re going to see these ethnic communities cook their food and they’re going to do it in a way that conveys what their culture is,” he says. “Because that’s what they know. It’s what they’re familiar with and oftentimes it’s recipes that have been carried down through generations.” Ucan notices when a certain Mexican restaurant depends on oregano to spice a particular dish, while another tosses in cumin. It all stems from what region they come from, how their families ate. “There are lots of little steps,” he says. “It’s all about what they know to use.”

    *

    Over the course of three weeks, I take several trips up and down Preston Highway. Delicious work that’s still not complete. I’ve barely skimmed the surface. (Koreana II, El Sabor de Cuba and El Taco Loco are just three places that still linger on my list.) I can report that Thai Noodles (formerly Thai Smile 5) cooks an intense, flavor-rich green curry that packs spice but somehow maintains an impossibly light, almost sheer quality. A fresh-ginger tofu lunch went down sweet, tangy and healing. The decor is simple — black tables and chairs, colorful portraits of the queen and now-deceased king of Thailand topping the chalkboard’s “daily special” menu. If you’re groggy and a sucker for condensed milk, proceed with the Thai iced coffee.


    Photo: Green curry with tofu at Thai Noodles.

    At La Loma one rainy afternoon I lunch on a whole fried tilapia covered with sautéed mushrooms and peppers. Navigating sewing-needle-sized bones may annoy some diners, but between bouts I replenish with seafood ceviche. Chunks of chewy octopus the exact dimensions of Double Bubble gum delight and disappear fast.

    One of my favorite stops is La Tropicana, a low-ceilinged Hispanic market with a seafoam green exterior and an inside that unfolds — one room leads to another, then another. Past snacks and soccer jerseys, gold chains and Aztec art, you’ll find cowboy boots in nearly every shade —turquoise, snow white, pink — covering an entire wall. Next to the boots, a roughly five-foot-tall statue of Santa Muerte stands. She’s the patron saint of death, a Grim Reaper-like figure with a scythe in one hand, a globe in the other. As the folklore goes, Santa Muerte (or Señora Blanca, aka “the White Lady,” as she’s known in some parts) can grant wishes for everything from health to vengeance if you offer a sacrifice, like money. Over her white robes, plastic wrap keeps dollar bills secure. Often found in cities with large Hispanic populations, it’s the first such display I’ve seen in Louisville.


    Photo: Fried tilapia at La Loma.

    Ethnic markets and restaurants will likely keep popping up. Foreign-born individuals now make up nearly 7 percent of Louisville’s total populations, up from 4.5 percent in 2004. It’s estimated that in a little over 20 years immigrants and refugees will total 17 percent of the city’s population. Louisville is home to one of the largest Cuban population outside Florida. (Las Vegas is first.) One census tract a few miles west of Preston Highway and close to the Gene Snyder boasts a 66 percent Hispanic population, up from about 18 percent in 2009. Over the last decade, Asian populations have grown several percentage points in areas of south Louisville.

    Ucan believes immigrant-owned businesses, particularly restaurants, act as natural, easy ambassadors. “Food is something that most people can connect over,” he says. “We are in a political time when we’re focusing on what divides us and what scares us. When you go to ethnic restaurants, like those on Preston Highway, you see the same faces. Their kids are often there. You get to know them as real people living in the same city as you. You see their humanity.”

    I snapped several photos while out and about on Preston, mostly so I wouldn’t forget little details when writing. In scrolling through the pictures — Santa Muerte, Thai royalty, colorful cans of pink soybean drink and green jelly drink, a striking mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe bursting from a bright lime-green wall — I suppose I was really just being a tourist, exploring and enjoying cultures beyond my own, a few miles down the way.

    This originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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