Thousands of people will flock to Elkhart County this summer to see quilt gardens and soak up Amish culture.
They’ll go to Das Dutchman Essenhaus, Blue Gate Restaurant and Amish Acres for food.
They’ll eat roast beef, fried chicken and mashed potatoes — foods designed for those who bale hay all day, not trudge around as tourists.
Slabs of pie and Rise N Roll doughnuts will be consumed. And maybe even some Jell-O salads.
And that’s all good and well. It’s part of what we offer in northern Indiana. We’re meat and potatoes people. At least we were.
What excites me is the new flavors and the range of ethnic foods that are not only coming to visit, but staying around in Elkhart County.
We’ve had great Italian food for decades, particularly in Elkhart. Even though Minelli’s, Poor Tony’s and Nicky D’s are memories, we still have Michael’s, Cappy’s, Antonio’s, Lucchese’s, Per Bacco and others.
And we’ve had great Mexican food for the last number of years, also because of immigration. We don’t need a Chipotle. We have Ricky’s Taqueria, La Esperanza and Los Primos.
Although Russian/Ukrainian immigrants came to Elkhart County years ago, it never resulted in those types of restaurants. But a few weeks ago at Goshen’s First Fridays, both kinds of foods were being served. The annual festival in September at the Holy Virgin Protection Russian Orthodox Church has some great food.
Of course there’s Chinese food. Even the smallest towns in America have carry-out spots that serve sweet and sour pork and governor’s chicken.
What’s remarkable is that the types of ethnic food keep getting broader and deeper.
For two decades, Rachel Shenk has operated a European bakery in Goshen called Rachel’s Bread. Her croissants may be better than some bakeries in Europe. And the other breads she and her staff create and bake are stellar. I still can’t quite believe I can get a loaf of pesto parmesan walnut bread or a fougasse with apricot preserves, roasted onions and brie in Goshen.
Kelly Graff has combined Asian flavors with others, including very Midwestern ones, during her career that’s culminated in Kelly Jae’s Cafe. Noodle Heads brought new flavors to Main Street. It didn’t work. But it doesn’t mean there’s not demand for those flavors.
Sushi didn’t last at Kelly Jae’s either, but it was part of the transformation in Elkhart County to make it part of the norm. Stirred did some of the hard work of introducing sushi to an Elkhart County audience. Chubby Trout carried that a bit farther. And although Stirred is gone, the sushi still sells at Chubby, and half-price sushi Mondays are popular at the corner of Cassopolis Street and C.R. 6.
I didn’t expect Goshen to get one Japanese restaurant, let alone two. But both Kaizen and Wasabi continue to serve sushi and more in the Maple City.
Elkhart got a Thai restaurant and Bangkok Place continues to be a great option along C.R. 6 in Elkhart.
At Lucky’s Donut, I’m amazed at the range of people who come in the door and order some of the Cambodian or Thai options. And Mrs. Lucky, as she likes to be called, keeps expanding her offerings. The fried rice I had recently with sausage, shrimp, chicken and beef was stellar.
But what’s so cool is how the flavors keep going new directions. Venturi is an Italian place, but it’s not like others. It’s making wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza in Goshen and is screaming busy.
Now there’s word that an Indian place will come to Main Street in Goshen — in the former location of Noodle Heads. And although Golden Monkey, a Vietnamese-American place, closed on the southeast side of Goshen, there are signs that Goshen’s first true Thai restaurant is on its way.
Ethnic food can happen anywhere really. Daniel’s Cafe in Ligonier has offered Ethiopian food in the unlikeliest of towns for years.
And what he did years ago in establishing service of an ethnic food occasionally alongside American food is a model for how others are trying it.
Constant Spring started offering an oval plate special on Wednesday nights to feature Thai, Cuban and other world cuisines.
New cook Darrell Gascho is working to take that even deeper. “Goshen is a very diverse community. What if those Wednesday night meals started coming from people in our community?” he said. So a recent Korean meal of marinated beef, rice and kimchi topped with a sunnyside-up egg did that, as did an Indonesian meal.
I was amazed to have bulgogi, as the beef dish is called, on a weeknight in Goshen. The same way I’m in awe that a doughnut shop is cranking out amazing Cambodian food.
It used to be that to get good ethnic food — other than Italian, Mexican or Chinese — you had to head west to Mishawaka, South Bend or even Chicago. And now the food in Elkhart County has just continued to get more and more interesting.
Why is this? I think that Food Network has made a huge difference. Seeing a chef there use something makes it seem less scary and more interesting.
Sriracha, hummus and even pita bread used to make grocery store clerks scratch their heads. But now they’re more commonly known. Chipotle has become common. Sriracha became a national news story.
As people have traveled, they’ve tried new flavors. And they’ve wanted to bring them back as much as they can.
Restaurants and their cooks can take more risks without alienating customers. And as someone selling one world cuisine succeeds, it makes it easier for the next one to do so too.
That’s exciting. The range here isn’t as broad or deep as in Chicago. But it continues to improve.
And as for those places that serve meat and potatoes and fried fish — keep doing it well. We all need some comfort food. And there’s always room for pie.
Now we just need more places to be open on Monday nights. And more places to stay open later for grub. And how about some good Sunday brunch options.
Those would really make Elkhart County sweeter when it comes to good food.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Rachel’s Bread, 212 W. Washington St., Goshen.
Kelly Jae’s Cafe, 133 S. Main St., Goshen
Chubby Trout, 2730 Cassopolis St., Elkhart
Kaizen, 2820 Elkhart Road, Goshen
Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi, 206 Johnston St., Goshen
Bangkok Place, 26084 C.R. 6, Elkhart
Lucky’s Donut, 700 W. Bristol St., Elkhart
Venturi, 123 E. Lincoln Ave., Goshen
Constant Spring, 219 S. Main St., Goshen