Food enthusiast Vivek Surti joins us today to give us the scoop on Nashville’s finest global cuisine. It’s time to let your taste buds travel!
Look, we all know Nashville is the “It City” these days. The eye of the nation is on Music City’s ever expanding culinary prowess – be it the popularization of Nashville-style hot chicken or fine dining excellence at James Beard-nominated restaurants like The Catbird Seat. But like all great dining cities, there exists a wide variety of international foods. We’re not talking about Chinese takeout and General Tso’s chicken. We’re talking spicy Thai curries, fresh-off-the-grill Kurdish kabobs and beautifully restorative pho. Dip a little into Nashville’s culinary depth and uncover some of the best eats in town. You can thank us later.
VN Pho & Deli (Vietnamese)
VN Pho & Deli is one of many Vietnamese restaurants along the Charlotte Pike corridor along with perennial favorites Kien Giang and Miss Saigon. While all of these restaurants are worth checking out, we recommend coming here for what is arguably the best pho in town. Pho is a noodle soup made by simmering meat bones for hours with star anise, cinnamon, onion, ginger and other spices. The hot broth is poured over deliciously springy noodles and a plate of lime, thai basil, bean sprouts and chiles. It knocks chicken noodle soup on its ass. Have a bowl of this and it’ll cure whatever ails you – the flu, a hangover or even a weekend with your mother-in-law. If you stick around (or need a snack for later) make sure to grab a banh mi.
Pro-Tip: This place is cash only, so make sure to hit the ATM before you go.
Recommended Dish: Beef Pho
Outside-The-Box: Banh Xeo – A super-crispy egg crepe made with turmeric powder and rice flour stuffed with pork and shrimp.
House of Kabob (Kurdish)
Surprisingly enough, Nashville has the highest population of Kurds in the world outside of Kurdistan. The best place to have Kurdish/Persian food is locked into an L-shaped strip on Thompson Lane between a Papa John’s and a dry cleaner. Walk into House of Kabob and you’ll see families gathered around the table eating some of the best food in the city. The stars of the menu are the kabobs – kubideh (ground beef), teka (beef sirloin), joojeh (cornish hen), chicken, lamb and even salmon. Served with a variety of different rices that have saffron and barberries or dill and fava beans, these kabobs will make you feel like your Kurdish grandmother has just made the most incredible Sunday Supper. If you want to something else, try the traditional stew of gormeh shabzi, made with greens, kidney beans, beef and dried lime.
Recommended Dish: Joojeh Kabob (A whole Cornish hen marinated in lemon, saffron and turmeric) served with barberry rice.
Outside-The-Box: Lamb Shank with Green Rice
Pro-Tip: Order the lamb braising liquid and their homemade hot sauce on the side
SGD Tofu House (Korean)
While there are quite a few good Korean restaurants in town (Korea House, Seoul Garden and Hai Woon Dae), SGD Tofu House is worth the trek over to Antioch Pike. Yes, the Korean BBQ here is great, including the galbi (beef short ribs), but what you really want to order is the Kimchi Jigae soup. The soup is made with an intense pork stock, flavored with ginger, chiles, garlic and kimchi. It comes to your table boiling hot in a pot and then they crack a raw egg into the soup, enhancing both its flavor and texture as it cooks within seconds. And the tofu? This is what tofu is supposed to taste like. None of that chicken-fried-tofu crap. Have a few bowls of soup with a side of rice and you’ll find yourself in Antioch frequently. You might even start speaking Korean!
Recommended Dish: Kimchi Jigae with Tofu (Duh! It’s called Tofu House)
Outside-The-Box: Seafood Pancake — an egg pancake stuffed with all kinds of seafood and a side of spicy gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste).
Carniceria Y Taqueria Don Juan (Mexican)
If you love Mexican food, there really is no place better to eat than on Nolensville Road than Carniceria y Taqueria Don Juan. What you won’t find is chimichangas, Dorito Loco tacos, or $15 table-side guacamole! What you will discover, however, are some of the best cheap eats in town. My favorite tacos are housed in this little green shack where they make simple and delicious tacos, all for about $1 each. These tacos are served up on fresh corn tortillas with a little bit of carnitas, onion, cilantro and their addictive green sauce (made with crema, cilantro, jalapeno and lime). If you’re feeling super hungry, try one of their massive tortas (Mexican sandwiches) or a fabulous roast chicken.
Recommended Dish: Carnitas Tacos
Outside-The-Box: Lengua (Beef Tongue) Tacos – Sounds weird, but I dare you to stop ordering them after your first bite.
Thai Esane (Thai/ Laotian)
Nina Sayasack, owner of Thai Esane, may be the most hospitable woman in Nashville’s culinary scene. If you’ve ever been to King Market (which is also owned by Nina’s family) off Haywood Lane before, you will see a lot of familiar items on the menu. Luckily for us, Thai Esane is right on 12th Avenue in between 12th South and the Gulch. While the more famous Thai dishes (red/green curry, pad thai, etc) are all done well here, you would be wise to branch out. Try the great papaya salad or laab, a cold, refreshing salad of minced meat, rice powder, mint, chiles and lime. Then, try one of the noodle soups (including the Khao Soi) before delving into the must-order Thai Esane Sausage! Made with pork, lemongrass, ginger and chile, this sausage, served with sticky rice and a side of lettuce, is one of the best dishes in the city. It’s flavorful, deliciously fatty and spicy.
Recommended Dish: Thai Esane Sausage
Outside-The-Box: Khao Soi Noodle Soup
Woodlands, housed on the first floor of an apartment complex off of West End, is one of the only restaurants in town serving up South Indian cuisine. And while it is a 100% vegetarian restaurant, even your biggest carnivore friend won’t leave hungry because the food here is so flavorful that you won’t even think twice about meat. Two areas which you should explore are the Dosa Menu and the Indian-Chinese Menu. Dosa is an Indian-style crepe made with rice and lentil flour and cooked on a flattop until it is super crispy and then stuffed, traditionally, with a mix of potatoes and spices. Here at Woodlands, they have a variety of dosas served with sambhar (a lentil and tomato soup) and chutney. Also, give the Indian-Chinese specialties like Gobi Manchurian or Hakka Noodles, which are really popular in India, a try!
Recommended Dish: Masala Dosa, Bhel Puri
Outside-The-Box: Gobi Manchurian
Guantanamera (Cuban) (UPDATE: Sadly this restaurant is CLOSED)
Guantanamera is another great restaurant tucked away on Nolensville Road, right across from the Nashville Zoo. If you don’t know much about Cuban food, it’s utterly delicious! Classic dishes include the lechon asado (slowly roasted pork with onions), black beans and rice, pressed Cuban sandwiches (filled with roast pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles) and ropa vieja (braised beef cooked with tomatoes, peppers and cumin). We’d recommend taking a group and ordering the Paella Valencia, which is a beautiful dish made with saffron rice, chicken thighs, peppers and perfectly cooked mussels. The presentation is dramatic and the dish tastes even better. Wash it down with a fresh mojito, kick back and enjoy your culinary vacation to Cuba.
Recommended Dish: Paella Valencia
Outside-The-Box: Ropa Vieja with black beans and rice, plantains
Gojo Ethiopian Café and Restaurant (Ethiopian)
If you are one of those people who loves “spiced” food, but not “spicy” food, then you should definitely check out the phenomenal Ethiopian food at Gojo! The cuisine uses quite a few spices, including fenugreek, coriander, cardamom, cumin and the classic Ethiopian blend of berbere. The base of much Ethiopian food includes clarified butter which has been infused with many of these spices and finds its way into numerous dishes. The best way to experience the menu here is to order the Combination Platters, which lets you choose a wide variety of dishes, both vegetarian and meat. All the dishes are served on a spongy bread, injera, which serves as both an vehicle for getting the flavorful food into your mouth and a plate. On the meat side, make sure to order the Doro w’et (a chicken stew cooked with berbere) and the Awaze Tibs (beef cubes simmered in a special sauce with spices and herbs). On the vegetarian side, check out the Foul (crushed fava beans with onion, tomato and jalapeno and the Kik Aletcha (yellow split peas cooked with ginger, garlic, onion and turmeric).
Recommended Dish: Meat and Vegetable Combination (two vegetable and two meat dishes) Doro We’t, Awaze Tibs, Foul, Kik Aletcha
Outside-The-Box: Kitfo (Ethiopian Beef Tartare – raw beef mixed with butter, chile powder and fresh cheese)
Pupuseria Salvadorena (Salvadorian)
Pupusas, I think, are one of the world’s greatest foods. Composed of a thick, homemade corn tortilla that is usually stuffed with cheese, meat and/or beans, is just a little crisp on the outside before yielding to the luscious filling in the middle. When it’s served with curtido, a tangy slaw and some salsa, it can be a great snack or a fantastic meal for anyone. Pupuseria Salvadorena, also off of Nolensville Road (see a trend here, folks?), puts out some of the best in town. I could try and tell you which pupusas I like and what you should try. But really, you should just go there and order all of them and see which ones are your favorites! Take a few friends, it’ll be fun! And if you’re still hungry, they also have tacos.
Recommended Dish: All of the Pupusas!
Lucky Bamboo China Bistro (Chinese)
For a long time, Nashville never had any decent Chinese food. But the owners of Lucky Bamboo (who also own the venerable Chinatown in Green Hills) have started pulling out all the stops at this Charlotte Avenue location. Yes, all the classic Americanized Chinese menu items are there. You, however, should go straight to the Szechwan items when you order. Soupy Chicken (yes, sounds weird, but tastes fantastic) is thinly sliced chicken breasts, with bok choy and a delicious sauce made from Szechwan peppercorns, garlic and ginger. Dan Dan Noodles are a mix of spicy ground pork, noodles and peanuts that are tossed together in front of your eyes. And then the pork and ginger dumplings dunked in hot chile oil will leave you speechless. And recently, they just added Cantonese-style roast duck (delicious!) and crispy roast pork belly (yes, please!). So get on over to Lucky Bamboo and have some of the best Chinese food to ever come to Nashville.
Recommended Dish: Soupy Chicken, Dan Dan Noodles, Dumpling with Hot Chile Oil
Outside-The-Box: Mala Beef Tendon, Pork Belly with Pickled Mustard Greens
Thank you, Vivek!
To follow Vivek, link to www.veasupperclub.com, where you can join his mailing list, and get updates through Twitter here: @viveksurti.
Vivek Surti is a first generation Indian American who was born and raised in Tennessee. He developed a love for great food and drink growing up watching his grandmother and mother cook traditional Indian food daily.
As Marketing Director for the Nashville Wine Auction, Vivek manages all marketing and communication efforts for the country’s oldest charity wine auction. In addition, he has an integral role in the development of the Nashville Wine Auction’s two new events — Pairings: The Ultimate Wine & Food Weekend and Champagne and Chardonnay.
Vivek is the founder of VEA (Vivek’s Epicurean Adventures) Supper Club, a monthly gathering of food and drink enthusiasts who sit down to a 5-course meal with cocktail pairings which highlight Vivek’s cultural influences of both Southern and Indian food. It was voted as The Best Secret Dining Option by the Nashville Scene Editors in 2011. He has recently launched a second pop-up called Dhaba, which seeks to bring Indian street food to Nashville.
He has been blogging for over four years and has written for numerous publications including StyleBlueprint, the Tennessean, Nashville Lifestyles, Drink Music City, and The Daily Meal.