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Immigrants in Columbus Ohio Create a Lively Food Scene

  • June Soh

House tours, ghost tours, monument tours ... there are lots of ways to view a city. But maybe only Columbus, Ohio, has food tours.

Columbus food blogger Bethia Woolf launched Columbus Food Adventures in 2010 in part because the city’s diverse immigrant population, now 9 percent of the total, has created a rich and diverse restaurant scene.

Woolf’s company offers taco truck tours, German village tours and above all, what she calls the Alt Eats tours.

“This unique city tour centers on the thriving ethnic enclaves of north Cleveland Avenue, where much of Columbus’ immigrant community lives, eats, and plays,” the Columbus Food Adventures website says.

Ethnic foods

Alt-Eats adventurers are guided to explore little-known ethnic restaurants, all within a few blocks of each other.

“We visit Indian, a Mexican bakery, we visit Nigerian, Vietnamese and Somali (restaurants),” Woolf said. “And then we are teaching them a little bit about the cuisine about the dishes they are going to eat.”

Columbus now has ethnic restaurants from more than 40 nationalities, and more are being added all the time.

“We recently found a market that is offering Sudanese food,” Woolf said. “Without leaving Columbus you can explore all these different cuisines.”

The tours are popular with out-of-town visitors and local residents alike.

Tourists on a Columbus Food Adventure climb aboard to visit some of the city's many ethnic restaurants in Ohio.
Tourists on a Columbus Food Adventure climb aboard to visit some of the city's many ethnic restaurants in Ohio.

Gloria Chavez is a tourist from California: “It’s just a great way to try new foods and meet new people. And learning about different cultures was great.”

For Brian Wolf and his wife, the tour is a guide to fine eating in his own city.

“Now we will definitely come back to these restaurants because they're all within 10 minutes of where we live, and all of them have been delicious,” he said.

Momo Ghar

Momo Ghar was at one time one of the restaurants on the tour. Barely more than a counter and two tiny tables, the Nepalese and Tibetan eatery is nestled inside an international grocery.

But its unassuming appearance hides a big reputation. Momo Ghar is Yelp’s No. 1 restaurant in Columbus.

Momo Ghar is just a counter and two tiny tables but it has a big reputation, No. 1 in Columbus, Ohio, on Yelp.
Momo Ghar is just a counter and two tiny tables but it has a big reputation, No. 1 in Columbus, Ohio, on Yelp.

“Momo is dumpling,” owner and chef Phuntso Lama says proudly. “We make a lot of dumplings. We are making probably several thousand dumplings a day. We have to keep up with the demand.”

A Nepalese immigrant, Lama has a signature dumpling: Jhol Momo. It and other dumplings are made from scratch in the restaurant’s little open kitchen.

“You could say Momo is almost like a national dish of Nepal because it is so popular. So I thought it would be nice to bring the flavor to Columbus,” Lama says.

Her dumplings have attracted loyal customers like Columbus resident Windi Noble.

“All those are flavorful and super tasty and filling and really cheap. So it's a great affordable meal. That’s why we keep coming back," Noble said.

The influx of immigrants to the city has also helped revitalize once-defunct suburban strip malls as the newcomers open shops and restaurants.

The Alt Eats Tour takes tourists and locals to Indian, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Somali restaurants, among others in Columbus, Ohio.
The Alt Eats Tour takes tourists and locals to Indian, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Somali restaurants, among others in Columbus, Ohio.

“There is approximately 150,000 to 200,000 immigrants and refugees in the central Ohio area,” Guadalupe Velasquez, city assistant director for the department of neighborhoods, said. “The total local and state taxes paid by immigrants is $340 million,” an indication of their thriving businesses.

Lama is planning a new contribution.

“Employees, I have about 14 or 15 of them,” she said. “The reason I have so many right now is I am training a lot of them because we are opening a second location in about four weeks.”

Lama says she's happy the flavors she brought from her native country are being embraced in her adopted home.

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