“No, Sue! You cannot go to an Ethiopian restaurant in Asheville today or any day! There are messages out all over. We are supposed to stay home. The virus is coming,” my friend Reene Ann warned.
It was March 15, 2020, and friends, one after another, were begging me not to eat at a restaurant. But I had planned this trip for weeks, and could not be deterred. The countryside between Boone and Asheville was overflowing with signs of spring: newborn lambs cavorting, daffodils and crocuses in bloom, magnolia trees flowering and sunshine seemingly blessing our journey. How could there be anything wrong with such a sun-crowned outing?
We arrived at Addissae Ethiopian Restaurant, and were welcomed with sambusas — little fried pastry triangles stuffed with spicy lentils, similar to Indian samosas. Next we dined on a typical Ethiopian dish, four little vegetable stews presented on spongy injera bread, and eaten with our fingers. Scrumptious! Our meal ended with a spritz of hand sanitizer brought by our server. We were covered. A stop at a nearby chocolate shop didn’t hurt, either.
Back in the car we looked at each other. “That was wonderful,” we exclaimed. “We’ve got to keep on! But,” we admitted resignedly, “it will have to be takeout from now on.”
Thus began our weekly COVID-19 ethnic restaurant meal tradition, adventures all. We were traveling the world without taking our passports along.
The second week’s outing featured a stir fry from Phan’s little red Japanese Express food truck on the N.C. 105 Bypass in Boone. We begged for spring rolls, and were told they didn’t have any. If we should want them in the future, would we phone them up ahead of time? Off we went, south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, in search of the perfect view, our own open-air restaurant.
The third week was calzones from Capone’s and a northward jaunt on the Parkway. Ethiopian, Japanese, Italian: we were well on our way. What would next week’s outing be?
It had to be my favorite High Country eatery, Cam Ranh Bay. I once wrote a story about Nancy Nguyen’s Vietnamese restaurant, and how she was one of the “boat people” fleeing the Vietnam war. She is noted for her spring and summer rolls and her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink can chua soup. Our fourth week’s restaurant visit was pure joy.
Imagine our surprise on our fifth week to find Los Izotes Salvadoran restaurant in Lenoir, with Salvadorans coming and going, carrying bags of piping hot food. Ah, pupusas, my favorite! I have golden memories of Katarina’s and Pupuseria La Bendicion in Cleveland, where we spend half our year. Toasted corn meal patties with herbs and cheese, topped with salsa and a spoonful of cole slaw, and finished off with huge frosty glasses of horchata and a side of sweet or salty platanos.
Years ago we discovered Monsoon, once a Thai food truck in the Tennessee countryside near Butler, now a little eat-in pole barn. Prayoon, the owner, chef, waitress, gardener and greeter, makes a fabulous Pad Thai and serves it with a big glass of Thai tea. While you wait for your food you can thumb through her photo album of her home in Thailand. This was our sixth week’s outing.
Who would have thought there’d be a Korean restaurant, Red Chile, in a little city like Elizabethton, Tenn.? Try the bibimbap if you go, the Korean national dish, sizzling rice with tofu, veggies and a spicy-sweet sauce, served way beyond piping hot in a —there’s no other way to describe it — dog-dish-like container.Kimchi, the other national dish, a very acidy cabbage mix, is definitely an acquired taste. Where else would one go on a two-hour drive just to eat lunch? Our seventh week choice was bliss.
And so it went on, takeout after takeout for one whole year: Chinese, Indian, Greek, Lebanese, Colombian, Honduran, Turkish, Mexican, Nepali, Cuban and Caribbean! You name it.
But wait! Restaurants are beginning to open up for indoor dining now. Why not start all over again? 196 countries await: let’s go!