The World On Your Plate

The World On Your Plate

Col. Steve Sliwa, USA (Ret), still can recall the time he tried octopus tentacles - while they were actually moving. During an assignment leading a brigade at Camp Casey in Dongducheon, South Korea, he occasionally dined with Republic of Korea officers. “Sometimes [they would] bring you to their facility and it would be an opportunity to try things … you'd never had before.”

For many servicemembers, one of the best parts of serving overseas is the food. No, not the rations you had to eat in the field, but that crocodile tail you tried in Australia or the schnitzel you ate in Germany. But long flights and language barriers are a high price to pay to experience these flavors again when you're back in the States.

Luckily, the continental U.S. has plenty of tucked away neighborhoods that offer global cuisines. Here are some of the best places to go the next time you're craving Korean, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, North African, Greek, or Thai cooking - no passport required.

Annandale, Va.

Serving at the Pentagon and nostalgic for the food you ate while keeping an eye on the DMZ? Drive to nearby Annandale, Va., where a prospering immigrant community has transformed faded strip malls into thriving Korean businesses.

Sliwa says the food in the Virginia suburb “compares extremely well” to what he ate in Seoul and at the mom-and-pop snack bars at Camp Casey. While many restaurants in Seoul focus on a specialty such as rice noodles or tofu soup, he says, the ones in Annandale tend to have broader menus - so if you're craving kimchi pancakes and “beef and leaf” (er, barbecue), chances are you'll be able to find them at the same place.

Popular Korean barbecue spots include local chain Honey Pig as well as Kogiya, which offers all-you-can-eat options for $25 a person. Raw cuts of pork belly, marbled brisket, and intestine for the more adventurous smoke, curl, and melt on a huge grill placed in the center of your table, while banchan - or traditional side dishes like kimchi (fermented vegetables; the standard version contains napa cabbage), oi sobagi (cucumber kimchi), kkadugi (cubed radish kimchi), and more - seem to magically replenish as you try to work through them.

Korean bakeries with a heavy French influence also populate the suburb. Customers can choose from mouthwatering treats like whimsical cakes in the shapes of animal faces, fluffy sweet and savory pastries, and boba tea and espresso drinks. Think French-style pastries, but with traditionally Korean flavors like sweet potato, green tea, red bean, and sesame.

If you don't succumb to a food coma, you can work off those calories with a trip to one of the 24-hour karaoke joints offering Korean and American pop favorites. (Private rooms are available for the tone-deaf or plain shy.)

New Orleans East

Small teams of servicemembers are deploying to Vietnam decades after so many troops fought there. Those who took a liking to dishes infused with basil, mint, or lime can hit up New Orleans East's Versailles Vietnamese community. Wake early on a Saturday for the best introduction: a “squat market” in a strip mall parking lot on Alcee Fortier Boulevard. Alongside herbs and greens, you'll find delicious rice packets wrapped in banana leaves, exotic fruits, and plenty of seafood.

Dong Phuong Bakery serves cheap banh mi (Vietnamese-style sandwiches) to order as well as all manner of hot plates, meat pies, and smoothies and is flanked by other Vietnamese businesses. While window shopping, keep an eye out for uniquely New Orleans twists on Vietnamese classics. Pho arguably has been reincarnated all over town as yaka mein, a similar brothy soup with spaghetti noodles and a boiled egg in each green-onion-garnished serving. Banh mi has been translated for locals as “Vietnamese po'boy.” And your Vietnamese coffee probably will have chicory as well as sweetened condensed milk.

Prime yourself for your visit by watching “A Village Called Versailles” (, a documentary that follows this New Orleans East community's recovery after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its fight for government representation when a toxic landfill nearly was placed upstream of sustaining herb gardens.

Check your lunar calendar early; New Orlean's Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, celebration has dragon dances and carnival games spilling over into neighboring weekends.

If you can't make it out of town for a day, Magasin Kitchen and Magasin Cafe, in the Central Business District and Magazine Street, respectively, both run by chef Kim Nguyen, offer authentic, albeit dolled-up, Vietnamese favorites.

New York

Troops who got a taste of Arab or North African traditions while deployed might be overdue for a trip to New York. Although so-called Arab ancestry can refer to people with roots in more than 22 countries and encompasses varied religious traditions and histories, a newer U.S. cohort often celebrates together, embracing shared cultures and languages.

Nowhere is the festivity higher than at the Arab-American and North African Cultural Street Festival north of Houston Street (NoHo) in New York City. The summertime event, sponsored by the Network of Arab-American Professionals, attracts more than 15,000 attendees who enjoy live comedic and musical entertainment, shop in the vendor area bazaar, play traditional instruments, read poetry, paint on henna tattoos, and even discuss international politics.

The available food ranges from Moroccan tagines (meat or vegetables stewed in an eponymous earthenware pot) to Syrian mujadara (lentils and rice) and Iraqi tikka (kebab).

Aside from festival days, there's no one particular area to hit for Arab food and culture. The communities are as widespread as the ethnicities, but New York has you covered, regardless. Just Google “New York City Jordanian Food,” for example. Tanoreen, Taïm, Balaboosta, and Balade all make Zagat's top Middle Eastern restaurants list.

Greektown, Chicago

For the lucky servicemembers who had port calls or training exercises in Greece, Chicago's Greektown can give you a taste of what you're missing. A visit to Greektown isn't limited to tasting gyros, baklava, spanakopita, moussaka, octopus, souvlaki, or ouzo. The once-high concentration of Greeks in the Near West Side means there's an entire National Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center introducing Greek architecture and pottery and immersing visitors in the experience of early 19th-century Greek immigrants coming to Chicago. Kids will love the museum's Little Homer Story Hour on Saturdays, and adults can learn a move or two from a $10 Greek dance lesson.

While strolling the main streets, look up to take in the white building facades, pillars, fluting, and other Greek architectural elements. Several intersections are adorned with pavilions and statues of deities from the Greek pantheon as well. Among the ample restaurants and cafes, Greektown Music invites customers to test out both contemporary and vintage sounds of Greece. The Athenian Candle Co., a three-generation Greek family-owned business, still makes many of its own wares.

Oh, and the food. You won't leave this neighborhood hungry. Highlights include the Parthenon and its famous flaming cheese saganaki; Santorini, which imports its family's olive oil and oregano from Sparta; and Zeus Gyros for a quick breakfast or lunch.

The list of festivals is impressive. Greektown Chicago's Twitter feed @GreektownChi is a clever way to keep up-to-date on the action beyond the yearly Greek Independence Day Parade and Taste of Greece events.

Thai Town, Los Angeles

Thais in Los Angeles are proud of their neighborhood, the first Thai Town in the U.S. In 1999, it won official recognition, and in 2008, Thai Town was designated as a Preserve America neighborhood, making the area - found just a few blocks east of the Hollywood Walk of Fame - eligible for large public grants to preserve its heritage as a Thai cultural center since the 1960s.

U.S. Marines might be more familiar with the jungles of Thailand, where they sustain themselves on cobra blood and scorpions during training exercises, but Thai Town restaurants arguably have their own charm. Palms Thai Restaurant has all the classics, plus more adventurous things like frog or a raw pork sausage, and live music (mostly covers) - including Thai Elvis. The area draws more than 100,000 people to its annual Songkran New Year's festival in April, but visitors can enjoy traditional Thai entertainment and tantalizing sour-sweet-salty-bitter-and-spicy flavor combinations throughout the year.

If you're short on time, snap a selfie under a kinnari (half-woman, half-bird) statue, stock up on holy basil and jackfruit, and stop by one of the many bakeries for Thai tea pudding or coconut rice dumplings.