Taste the Heat

It's the mid-winter itch. You're tired of staying at home, too cold to leave your bed. The air in the house has become stuffy, and you long to open the windows and feel the sunshine. But there is no sunshine. Just cold, gloomy, Michigan winter. A vacation somewhere exotic is exactly what you need, but those are expensive and require time off of work. What if you can get out and experience something warm and fresh without leaving Grand Rapids? I'm talking about a tour of local restaurants serving international cuisine. You might still need your coat, but once inside, the spicy flavors will make you forget you're in Michigan.

Chez Olga is one of the only local places you can go for Creole and Caribbean food, making it a very unique and important spot in Eastown. Serving up fried plantains, pate, creole chicken, tilapia, and goat, Chez Olga brings the heat while offering a much spicier and different menu than what most Grand Rapidians are used to. Chez Olga herself, Olga Benoit, came to the United States in 1993, fleeing civil war in Haiti. She didn't immediately delve into the restaurant business, never having received any professional culinary training, and didn't view herself as a chef. But through sharing her cooking for church and school events, she fortuitously began building a culinary fan club who convinced her to get into catering and, eventually, start her own restaurant.

Surprisingly, Grand Rapids is a haven for authentic taco stands, one of the best being Tacos El Cunado. There's four locations in Grand Rapids, each with its own take on the menu, catering to the nearby population. The downtown market location is perhaps the most popular. It features a more Americanized menu with combo meals and a few vegan options in place of the more "adventurous" meats. The Bridge Street location is a walk up take out place, and the Burton St. and Grandville Ave. locations are more authentic Mexican where you can order tacos de tripe, cabeza, and lengua if you feel up to it. Although the owner, Mario Cascante, is Costa Rican, the menu is purely central Mexican cuisine.

One more stop on the list is Curry Kitchen on Fulton St. An Indian restaurant featuring a long list of vegetarian dishes, rice, naan, and a stellar all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and for the meat-eaters, Tandoori chicken, beef, lamb, and seafood.

The restaurant scene in Grand Rapids is changing. Foodies want to be surprised, to experience something different every time they eat out. They want to be more connected to the food and the land and community that created it. Eating out is an experiment, an adventure. It's the perfect thing to make you forget the dreariness of winter and give you something exciting to look forward to until the sun shows its face again.