Crossroads of cultures: cuisines from the far corners of the world

Mateo Mangolini, Staff Reporter

Living within the metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area, it is not uncommon to see restaurants and cafes with inspirations from other countries and continents. From Chinese to Pakistani to Mexican, there is a range of cuisines to choose from when looking for some place to eat. There are, however, some unexpected additions to this culinary roster that have new and refreshing flavors on their menus, reflective of the diverse nature of this megalopolis. My father and I set out on a tour of San Carlos’ foreign restaurants with this nicheness in mind, hoping to break out of our typical diet. My father tends to gravitate towards cooking dishes inspired by Korea, Vietnam and Mexico, mirroring the dominating flavors on this side of the bay area. Though we have sampled a number of cuisines during our travels across five continents, we are always on the lookout for exciting opportunities to expand our culinary horizons.

When walking down Laurel Street in San Carlos, cross the street at the Starbucks and take a right. Next to the Carlos Lighting Company, you’ll find Tamari: Authentic Georgian Cuisine. Named after Tamari II, a Georgian national hero, Tamari brings a host of cuisines from the Western Caucasus. The dishes draw on influences from Russia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. When eating at Tamari, it is important to remember that this food is authentic to what is found back in Georgia: traditional Georgian food is dominated by beef, lamb, cheese, yogurt and bread. Though there are vegan options, such as Phkali (a vegetable pate) and Lobio (beans served within a clay pot), their meat-based options are their true claim to fame.

 During my visit, I sampled a  number of dishes, starting with Tolma. Tolma, similar to the Turkish dish Dolma, puts a spin on the rice filled grape vines by using spiced beef as filler. The contrast of the meat with the yogurt sauce that it was served with made for an excellent first course. Another stand-out dish is Megruli Khachapuri, or Georgian cheese bread. With an incredibly fluffy texture, this bread made for a surprisingly heavy eating, with its rich composition of bread and smoked Georgian cheese. Though there are only two basic ingredients, the cheese certainly dominates with its smoky flavor. This was my favorite dish during my meal (primarily from the smoked Georgian cheese’s incredibly rich consistency and strong flavor), and its status as vegetarian makes it especially accessible to non meat eaters. My final two dishes were Chakapuli and Khinkali. Chakapuli is a traditional lamb stew, seasoned with green plums, tarragon, and herbs such as mint. The mint featured quite heavily within it, so those who love the herb will love this dish. For me, the mint clashed with the taste of the lamb, which created an awkward eating experience. The mint also acted as an aromatic agent, filling my nose as well as my mouth with that herbal scent. Khinkali, on the other hand, is a traditional Georgian soup dumpling with a rather unique method of consumption. The dumplings, made from soft dough, are filled with meat and, surprisingly, soup. The broth absorbs the flavor of the spiced lamb meat, and combines it with onions and paprika to make a strong, mildly salty taste.   You eat the dumplings by making a hole in the dough and sucking out the broth, which makes for a fun (albeit tricky) experience. Khinkali comes as a close second to Khachapuri for me in terms of enjoyment. Overall, Tamari is a must-visit, with a wide selection of traditional flavors that certainly add to the repertoire of San Carlos’s downtown restaurant scene.

The next stop on my tour was Kabul: Afghan Cuisine. Located on the border between Belmont and San Carlos, this restaurant presents a variety of flavors from the Afghan highlands, which are sandwiched between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Like Georgian cuisine, Afghan food is very savory, and is dominated by bread, meat and various dairy products, though there is also a large quantity of ingredients from the onion family. Additionally, Afghan cuisine has a variety of inspirations from its neighbors, namely Iran, Central Asia and Pakistan.

I found the food at Kabul: Afghan Cuisine to be a nice middle ground between the savory flavors of Georgia and the incredibly spicy cuisine of Thailand. The Bulanee, a plate of turnovers filled with leeks and spring onions, reminded me of the Croatian dish Soparnik, and was similarly able to taste flavorful with relatively few ingredients. The spring onions had a mild flavor that didn’t clash very much with the dough. I washed it down with a cup of cardamom tea before heading onto my entree, Mantoo. Mantoo consists of dumplings filled with onions and ground lamb, topped with yogurt and even more ground lamb. The eating experience greatly reminded me of lasagna, though the yogurt made for a unique taste in place of cheese. The lamb was especially high quality: it was neither tough nor dry, and almost had the consistency of ground beef.  This restaurant receives my full recommendation, and it’s warm ambience, lovely food and excellent service make it an enjoyable experience for those looking to step outside their culinary comfort zone.
The last stop on my tour provided a variety of flavors from Thailand. Thai cuisine is famous for its spiciness, in addition to the dominating ingredients of shrimp, coconut milk, and chilis. A lesser known fact, however, is that various other South and East Asian cuisines have found their way into the Thai palette. From Indian Roti to Taiwanese Boba, Thailand has a rich tradition of absorbing and reinventing flavors from across the continent.  Sirvayah: Organic Thai Cuisine carries on this culinary trend.

Sirayvah takes the cake for atmosphere when compared to the other restaurants on my tour. Seated in warm cushioned chairs among carvings in the traditional thai artstyle, this restaurant works to make you feel at home. Within the cozy confines of this establishment, you’ll find a host of traditional dishes and drinks, each more enjoyable than the last. I started my dinner with a Thai iced coffee, a splendidly sweet beverage with a brew that seemed to originate from somewhere in the Southeast Asian region. The almost nutty flavor of this light beige coffee is iconic to brews from Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and is a must-try for any enthusiasts of the drink. My palette was certainly balanced with the arrival of my spicy main meal, Jan Pad Poo. A combination of chilli peppers, noodles, crab meat, egg and green onions, I knew that I would enjoy this dish from the smell alone. Despite the wide variety of ingredients, the meal had a consistent and soft texture that greatly complimented the symphony of flavor I found myself enjoying. The chili peppers really added a kick to the dish as a whole, and certainly took me off guard. For those in the market for a hot and spicy entree, this dish is for you. My second dish, the Prih King Prawns, proved to be a milder, but equally delicious, dish. According to my father, my partner on my tour and an avid lover of Thai cuisine, the Mutan white tea and jasmine green tea pair well with the food on the menu, in addition to the fried banana with honey. It should also be noted that there are a plethora of vegetarian and vegan options to choose from, so there’s very little inconvenience for non-meat eaters. I highly recommend Sirayvah for those looking for a delicious eating experience in a cozy setting.

Breaking out from the status quo often yields unexpected and niche experiences ; from savory cheese bread to spicy noodles, the establishments I visited took great pride and care in their work, which certainly reflects within the quality of the food. I give a full recommendation to those who wish to break outside the bubble of Silicon Valley restaurants, and into a range of new and exciting flavors.