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8 hot ethnic restaurants to try in Northern New England

Dishes served at Istanbul Kebab House include shrimp Güveç, chicken Adana, vegetable-stuffed eggplant, meze platter, and mixed grill kebab. Photo by Oliver Parini

New England may be known for its lobster, clam chowder, and baked beans, but times are changing—fast. The ethnic dining scene is heating up across the region, as more chefs showcase the foods of their homelands or return from worldwide travels passionate about bringing global tastes to the table. Here are eight restaurants in New England to check out.

1. Asian fusion food: Tao Yuan

A bowl of scallops at Tao Yuan

Local scallops at Tao Yuan in Brunswick, Maine. Photo by Erin Little

Put fresh local ingredients in the hands of a talented chef with Chinese heritage, and you get Tao Yuan, a delightfully unique restaurant in Brunswick, Maine. Chef-owner Cara Stadler needs little introduction to those who follow Maine’s culinary scene. She’s received oodles of honors and five nominations for a James Beard Award. Stadler works alongside her mom, Cecile, in this tiny mid-coast restaurant, one of her four eateries in Maine. 

The menu changes, but expect small-plate dishes like Grandma Tang’s roast pork buns with brown bean paste, and Maine seared scallops with Asian pear, aji sambal, sake, yuzu, and miso.

Info: Plates $8–$18. At press time, Tao Yuan was closed due to a staffing shortage. Check the website before visiting.

2. Indian food: Tulsi

Various curry dishes at Tulsi

Curry selections at Tulsi, a Northern Indian restaurant in Kittery, Maine, include coconut shrimp with mild onions and cilantro. Photo by Jennifer Bakos

Award-winning chef Rajesh Mandekar helms Tulsi, a perpetually busy Northern Indian restaurant in Kittery, Maine. Since its opening, the sleek, contemporary restaurant has won a slew of accolades and garnered a lineup of repeat diners.

Shrimp Balchow is a winner for heat lovers with its spicy Goan sauce, or try the pork vindaloo, a fiery staple. There are tandoor-prepared dishes (think heavily spiced Cornish hen marinated in yogurt) and curries, like the bone-in goat version with a mild blend of spices. Sop up your sauces with fresh naan. There’s an extensive vegetarian menu, too.

Info: Entrées $17–$24.50, closed Mondays.

3. Korean food: Mr. Kim’s

A bulgogi beef and rice bowl served alongside a cocktail

A bulgogi beef and rice bowl with kimchi and gochujang sauce at Mr. Kim’s in Portland. Photo by Brayden Rudert

Gary Kim, chef-owner at Mr. Kim’s, exemplifies a passion for global flavors at his cozy restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “The restaurant is rooted in the flavors of the Korean home cooking that I grew up with,” Kim says. “But it’s also a culmination of eating experiences I’ve had traveling abroad through Asia and Europe.”

Kim combines international spices with local products to create some of his most popular dishes, like rice bowls topped with fresh, local meats and gochujang sauce, and the roasted zucchini and cauliflower coconut curry.

Info: Entrées $14–$18, closed Sundays and Mondays.

4. Mexican food: The Mad Taco

A plate with pork carnitas and roasted yam tacos

House-smoked pork carnitas and roasted yam tacos at The Mad Taco, which has five locations in Vermont. Photo by Oliver Parini

Just about everything at The Mad Taco—from overstuffed, smoked in-house pork carnitas or roasted yams and black bean tacos topped with a zippy slaw and handfuls of fresh cilantro to the cold-smoked pork belly tacos topped with jalapeños and house-made salsa or the fajitas with Vermont cheese and crema—is made from scratch using ingredients from the owner’s farm or local purveyors.

When it’s on the menu, goat, humanely raised on the owner’s farm, is a must. There are vegetarian and gluten-free options, too, and a nice selection of local beers (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol).

The original location of this Vermont mini-chain is in Waitsfield; other locations can be found in Montpelier, Middlebury, Essex, and the Bolton Valley Resort.

Info: Entrées $12–$17.

5. Nepalese food: Durbar Square

A ring of momos surround a serving of dipping sauce in the center

The steamed dumplings known as momo are one of Nepal’s most popular foods. Durbar Square in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, offers five varieties that may be mixed and matched. Photo by Jennifer Bakos

A busy, bi-level eatery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Durbar Square specializes in authentic Nepalese cooking. Of course, you’ll try momo, steamed dumplings that are one of Nepal’s most popular foods. Lamb, wild boar, and vegetable (vegan) are all good momo choices.

Feeling under the weather? Order the greens-packed and tomato-based Gundruk soup, which is said to have healing powers. Other options include the crave-worthy chilies, with a choice of protein or vegetables in a well-balanced mix of sesame seed oil, olive oil, vinegar, red wine, and fresh spices, and the Tarkari, a traditional Nepalese dish in a tomato-based curry sauce.

Info: Entrées $16–$26.

6. Thai food: Boda

Quail eggs topped with soy sauce and scallions served in a pan

In Portland, Boda seasons its spicy Kanom-Krok quail eggs appetizer with soy sauce and scallions. Photo by Zak Tallion

An energetic eatery in Portland’s west end, Boda offers flashbacks of the bustling Sriyan Market in Bangkok. The sights, the sounds, the smells! This lively restaurant serves what they call “very Thai” food.

Start with Thai street food snacks like the spicy Kanom-Krok quail eggs, seasoned with soy sauce and scallions, and the popular Thai sticky rice ball. Follow with skewers from the grill bar, including crispy pork belly with tamarind dipping sauce, portobello mushrooms with sesame oil, and the fork-tender steak, marinated in ginger, garlic, soy, lime leaf, and lemongrass.

Still hungry? Try the Woon-Sen Pad Thai entrée, with glass noodles, chives, shallot, daikon, bean sprouts, and tofu wrapped in a Thai egg omelet.

Info: Skewers $6–$10, entrées $16–$21.

7. Turkish food: Istanbul Kebab House

A plate with kebab, roasted veggies, and other sides at Chicken Adana

Chicken Adana features mildly spiced ground poultry at the Istanbul Kebab House in Burlington, Vermont. Lamb and swordfish are among other kebab options. Photo by Oliver Parini

Owners Hasan, Vural, and Jackie Oktay import most of Istanbul Kebab House’s ingredients from Turkey to use in the prettily presented dishes at this family-owned restaurant in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

Consider the meze platter with a side of the house-made lavash bread, or spring for the grilled Mediterranean octopus, both worthy appetizers. Move on to the char-grilled kebabs; the choice between slow-roasted, thinly sliced lamb and beef Döner kebab or the Surf and Turf with swordfish and beef tenderloin is difficult.

There’s also a variety of casseroles cooked in traditional earthenware bowls and house specialties like the lamb or veggie-stuffed eggplant.

Info: Entrées $17.99-$33.99, closed Mondays.

8. Eritrean and Ethiopian food: Red Sea

Yemane Tsegai and his wife, Akbret Batha, own Red Sea, a cozy restaurant in Portland that serves hearty East African dishes. No one comes for the restaurant’s no-frills atmosphere, but hungry diners line up for Batha’s scratch-made comfort food.

Tsebihi Dorho is a favorite, with chicken drumsticks in a bright red, spicy berbere sauce. For less heat, try the Tibsi stew with tomatoes, onions, and peppers in a buttery sauce, or Alicha Begee, featuring lamb cubes with potatoes, carrots, and peppers in a mild curry sauce. Fluffy, house-made injera bread is a superb accompaniment.

Info: Entrées $12–$16, closed Sundays and Mondays.

New England–based writers Diane Bair and Pamela Wright cover food and travel for several publications and are frequent Boston Globe contributors.

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