Good Food in Columbus: Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese

japan, Ohio, usa

My memories of Japan travel across all the senses, sometimes pausing on just one. Taste. Cool soba on a hot summer day; oden in the winter; fresh sushi from a tiny shop in Tokyo’s Hiroo district; sweet mochi from the nameless store on the backstreets of Nishi Azabu, and yakitori at the Azabu Juban festival.

Vendor at Azabu Juban Festival, Tokyo. Photo by author.

Breakfast at a ryokan in Kyoto. Photo by author.

Last year a little takoyaki stand sprung up on Columbus’ North High Street. The married couple (she is from Japan and he is Korean-American) had run a successful Japanese crepe truck the year before, and revived the name, Fresh Street, at their new venture. Popping the piping octopus-filled hot dough balls into my mouth for the first time late afternoon last summer transported my senses back to the street vendor on the neon-lit street of Osaka where I tried takoyaki for the first time. It was that good.

Sadly, Fresh Street were just borrowing the street stand on afternoons from the Mickey’s Late Night Slice pizza vendor, who decided they wanted to expand their business into the daytime, and now the takoyaki stand is no more.

But, joyfully, Fresh Street is open for business at the Double Happiness bar in the Brewery District, serving yakitori, kushiyaki and small-plate Japanese bar snacks. And, as of this week, they will be serving a special lunch-only menu too. As for takoyaki, I have been getting my fix at Tensuke Express next door to the Japanese grocery on Henderson and Kenny.

Fresh Street at Double Happiness. Photo by author.

Double Happiness decor. Photo by author.

I had been looking forward to visiting Columbus’ Asian Festival the other month and widening my appreciation for Columbus’ surprisingly healthy Asian food scene. But I had the flu for three days and missed it. I have done my own investigation around the city and these are the best places I have found so far:

Arirang, 1526 Bethel Road

There is whole bunch of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai businesses on and around Bethel Road. It seems to be some kind of hub.  I absolutely love the Korean market, Arirang. Here, you can pick up Korean groceries at the grocery store then sit down for a meal at the tiny attached restaurant. My favourite dish so far is the Dolsot Bibimbap (a mixed rice, vegetable and meat dish served in a hot stone bowl). All dishes come with traditional banchan, a selection of small dishes that change every day, and hot barley tea is complimentary.

Bangkok, 3277 Refugee Road

Bangkok Restaurant. Photo by author.

Like Arirang, Bangkok Restaurant is attached to a grocery store. This Thai restaurant lies in unappealing surroundings but is filled with charming images of Thailand and delightful service staff. While Bangkok offers a handful of Chinese-American dishes as well as Thai, I feel that to order them here would be a shame. I liked the pad prick pao ground pork dish.

Lan Viet, North Market, 59 Spruce Street

Lan and her husband Thanh Lee run the Lan Viet stall at the North Market. Their pho is the best, I think, in the city — though the banh mi and coffee is better at Mi Li in Northland.


Celebrate Local/International

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Romanian dancer. Photo by Karen Dion

Celebrate Local pop-up store at Easton. Photo by Karen Dion

“Local” is huge here in Ohio. We’ve got the farmers’ market CSAs; the microbreweries; microdistilleries; the micro coffee roasters, food trucks and great independent restaurants like Surly Girl. There’s a pop-up store open right now at Easton called, appropriately, Celebrate Local, that sells only handmade and artisan products made in Ohio.

It was a comfort to me to find a proudly local scene. Moving here from Hawaii made me feel deflated, like, what is there in Columbus, OH? The Midwest doesn’t really have the greatest reputation and it was easy for friends back in Hawaii to sympathize with my unwelcome move: “Oh well. At least you’ll be near New York.” I felt as though I was moving to a place that just wasn’t good enough.

Well, what do you know; it really isn’t that bad. Columbus is truly waking up and evolving into a destination. Look, even the National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune say so. We’ve even got some of the world’s best ice cream right here — what impresses me even more about Jeni’s is that, according to one of their ice cream ambassadors that I was talking to, it stays busy even in winter.

We are also a bit of a cultural melting pot, which is something I didn’t really realize (outside of the impressively diverse ethnic restaurant scene) before attending the 56th annual Columbus International Festival at the Veteran’s Memorial last weekend. Groups representing Somalia, India, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, Ecuador, Rwanda and at least 70 other countries opened up booths offering food, crafts and general information from their native lands while troupes performed traditional dances on the main stage.

For more about the festival: Celebrating Diversity at the Columbus International Festival

Romanian dancer. Photo by Karen Dion

Indian dancers. Photo by Karen Dion

Russian candy. Photo by Karen Dion