It’s a shopping center that looks like any other, low-profile and nondescript, located in the suburban sprawl that is south Arlington, just north of The Parks mall and the traffic-gnarled Cooper Street-Interstate 20 interchange.
But the first time you take a drive around its perimeter, if you’re an ethnic food-seeker like me, you might have a furrowed brow, your stomach may start rumbling, and … oops, what’s that? There’s a little bit of drool dropping from the corner of your mouth.
How could it be that a Hawaiian, a Cuban, a Caribbean and an Indo-Pak restaurant are co-existing in one single shopping center?
Short of can I get a small apartment somewhere in the immediate vicinity?, maybe it’s best not to question the existence of this heavenly culinary destination, a simple if elongated building at 3701 S. Cooper St. Just get yourself in the car and point it in that direction.
Yet in fact, if you look closely along this stretch — but of course still keep your eyes on the road — there’s even more to make this slice of South Cooper worth returning to, time and again, for a tantalizing spread that elicits swoons and delivers one taste sensation after another. And there’s even more down the road that allows you take a global-cuisine trip within the space of a few miles.
Arlington has long been a haven for ethnic food, but this concentration of it, in restaurants that for the most part have opened in the past couple of years, comes in an area of the city better known for chains. So come along on a culinary journey.
Backstory: Khang Vo, a native of Vietnam by way of Hawaii, had an idea: Bring his beloved poke — think Hawaiian sushi — to the masses. Opened last April, his counter-style restaurant is simple in decor (love that shark mural) and in menu, with a Chipotle-style ordering system. Vo says it’s the first build-your-own-poke-bowl restaurant in Texas, and it was on top of a poke trend that started to gather momentum in 2016.
Best bets: Vo’s fish is the showstopper, as well it should be for a poke place. Delivered fresh each day via UPS — it was swimming in the Pacific only 24 hours prior — the ahi tuna comes in three varieties: Hawaiian, shoyu and spicy. Salmon is regular and spicy, plus there’s popcorn shrimp for the raw-seafood-averse. Pick from an array of toppings — don’t miss the creamy crabmeat — and you’re ready to enjoy an authentic poke bowl (large $10.95, regular $8.95). And save room for dessert: Vo’s wife makes an elegant blueberry Japanese mousse cup ($3.50), like cheesecake, but airier.
Backstory: Three Cuban emigres — two of whom had previously worked in restaurants in New Jersey — opened this approachable spot last fall. Chef Miguel Mendez, part of that trio, cooks the food of his grandmother’s kitchen in Cuba, and the results are nothing short of flavorful miracles.
Best bets: Start with a pitcher of fruity sangria — the restaurant recently received its liquor license — and an order of yuca fries with cilantro-garlic dip ($5). You won’t be sorry. The palomilla steak ($17.95), topped with sauteed onions, is served with runny black beans and excellent fried bananas. And the paella ($60) is a Cuban riff on the Spanish classic, with seemingly endless amounts of mussels, scallops, shrimp, squid and lobster. The rice, perfectly cooked, is a starchy foil to the green olives, onions and red peppers. Be sure to make room and save time (it takes 50 minutes to make) for this showstopper, which easily feeds four hungry diners.
Backstory: Opened last June by Puerto Rican native Manuel Rodriguez and his family, the small dining room here is frequently full of regulars, relishing fried pork chops, plantains and fried cod fritters. For many, the term “Caribbean food” brings to mind jerk chicken, but El Mofongo’s food leans more toward the Puerto Rican/South American side.
Best bets: Well, the mofongo ($12.95), an Afro-Puerto Rican dish consisting of sauteed green plantains infused with butter and garlic, is outstanding. And the pernil ($10), tender roasted pork with peas and yellow rice, is calling our name next visit. Desserts are made in-house, by Rodriguez’s mother, but be warned: They sell out fast.
Cuisine: Indian, Pakistani, Mediterranean
Backstory: Family-run, affordable and charming, this small restaurant opened at the end of last year, offering a $9.99 lunch buffet and dinner service with a globe-trotting menu, from traditional chicken tikka masala ($6.99) to a side of falafel ($1.99). It may be small, but the menu is large — the vegetarian section alone has nearly a dozen items.
Best bets: The butter chicken ($7.99) is spot-on with chunks of chicken swimming in a yogurt sauce, and beef nihari ($7.99) is rich, stewlike and ideal for breezier days. Naan bread is made in-house, baked in a tandoor oven, and comes in three varieties: plain, butter and garlic.
Backstory: A few miles south on Cooper is this festive BYOB restaurant that owner Sam Sensel opened eight years ago, offering diners a huge selection of grilled meat, as well as traditional Greek specialties like moussaka and gyro plates. And Sensel is expanding his Turkish empire to downtown Fort Worth: A second Istanbul Grill, this one to feature a full bar, is scheduled to open in late March in Sundance Square.
Best bets: You could make a fabulous meal purely from the appetizers here, from the borek rolls (phyllo rolls with feta, fried; $6.50) to the fried zucchini pancakes ($7) and creamy, garlicky hummus ($6.75). May I suggest a Mixed Hot appetizer ($15), which features the pancakes and borek rolls, plus spinach borek and falafel?
Backstory: It bears a straightforward maxim — “German food, fast and delicious” — and the year-plus-old restaurant is no-frills, with German-flag tablescapes and steins of Krombacher beer in abundance. According to the restaurant’s Facebook page, the owner grew up in Germany and, after living in the U.S. for many years, “hatched this colorful Arlington hangout.”
Best bets: Try the Bavarian pretzel with beer cheese dip ($7), heavy and satisfying in a “When in Dresden” kind of way. The buttery noodles of the spaetzle, served with the chicken schnitzel ($17), are carbohydrate bombs. So go for a run afterward.
Backstory: This 3-month-old restaurant aims to put its stamp on pork-heavy Filipino fare, in a simple, small dining room that has already drawn a fervent fan base.
Best bets: The pandesal, squares of yeasty, salty, buttery rolls, are stellar. They’re so good that people have been known to stop by in the morning and buy the bread by the dozens. And the halo-halo ($5.99) is gorgeous: shaved ice with ube (purple potato) ice cream, studded with tapioca pearls and jack fruit, atop evaporated coconut milk.
This report contains material from Star-Telegram archives.