Why doesn't anybody eat at the places that have the best food?" My son posed this question one weekday afternoon as he polished off my bowl of pho at Café Orient, a new restaurant on Richards Road in Antioch. Opened about one month ago, Café Orient is long on credentials but, as yet, short on customers, and that's too bad.
Harry, apparently a food snob in the making, was referring to the fact that Café Orient was the third place in a row we had dined as solo customers. Not yet in school last week, he was left to hang out with Mom as I scouted new restaurants off Nashville's beaten path.
The first place we discovered on our culinary treasure hunt isn't actually a restaurant, but a mobile kitchen/walk-up food stand, currently parked in the lot of Zack's ExpressMart at 5101 Nolensville Road. The bright afternoon sun bouncing off the shiny silver exterior of the van lured me in to investigate. I assumed it would be another of the countless taco stands popping up all over town, but a hand-stenciled sign hanging from the roof said otherwise. "Pupusaria Dona Rosa" was the good news it announced.
Pupusas, a staple of Salvadoran street food, are made from the inside out: ground cornmeal dough is patted around a meat, bean or cheese filling, then cooked on a flat grill. They are traditionally served with a pickled cabbage slaw, called curtido. Up until now, there has only been one place to get a pupusa, at Las Americas, a market/restaurant also on Nolensville Road that serves primarily Mexican food.
A mutual language barrier prevented me from communicating well with the young woman staffing the pupusa standRosa's daughterbut the very short menu is written in both Spanish and English. Fried plantains, beans and eggs make up the breakfast offerings; Harry and I sampled the entire lunch menu: a pupusa and a pane salvadoreño, a Salvadoran sandwich.
We chose the meat-and-cheese pupusa, rather than the bean-and-cheese option. Delivered steaming-hot off the grill, Dona Rosa's pupusas are not as heavy on the dough as those at Las Americas. They resemble more a stuffed pancake than a dumpling, but don't skimp on the ground meat and white cheese filling, or the tangy slaw on the side. One is just $1.35, though bigger appetites will want to order two.
The sandwich, on the other hand, is an entire meal including every food group. A long, soft roll is split in half, spread with mayo and piled with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, radish, the curtido, a hard-boiled egg and a sizable portion of stewed chicken. Its size, content and the bone-in chicken require tackling the sandwich with knife and fork, which is when I discovered the secret ingredient hidden under the lettuce: sliced pickled beets. I happen to be so beet abhorrent that even juice seepage onto other food items renders them inedible to me; fortunately, the lettuce had protected everything but the bread. I ate the contents, and my son enjoyed the maroon-stained bread. If you have beet issues as well, try saying this when ordering: por favor, no betabel. The sandwich is also a bargain at just $3.50. Chicken tamales are sold on Sundays.
Food can be packed up to go, or you can take a seat at one of the three stools at the counter or at one of the two nearby picnic tables. Beverages are available at the ExpressMart next door. Pupusaria Dona Rosa is open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Fri.; 6-10 p.m. Sat.; and 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
After some stops at the ethnic markets and bakeries that line Nolensville Road, Harry and I headed back to town. A little ways past Thompson Lane, I noted that Mecca, the Somalian restaurant a block or two north of La Hacienda Taqueria, has apparently been replaced by a Middle Eastern restaurant, so we pulled over to check it out. The thoroughly cleaned-up and redecorated room was bereft of humans, save for Sabah Siso's young son; the Iraqi immigrant is the co-owner of the 4-month-old Dunya Kabob with Yassin Yassin, a native of Kurdistan.
As the name indicates, skewered meat and vegetables form the backbone of the menu, with chicken, beef, lamb and salmon the options for kabobbing. Though we were just looking, the gyro sandwich on the menu tempted Harry, a gyro lover since toddlerhood, so we ordered one to go. The intoxicating smell of savory grilled meat proved irresistible, so we pulled over in the Fairgrounds parking lot and handed the large sandwichwith slices of gyro meat, lettuce, tomato, onion and yogurt sauce wrapped in a large round of homemade pitaback and forth until it was gone.
Dunya Kabob, at 2521 Nolensville Road, serves an all-day menu and is open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; and noon-9:30 p.m. Sun. Phone: 242-6664.
Finally, a tip from architect/foodie Manuel Zeitlin sent us to the aforementioned Café Orient. He knew chef/owner Hiro Watanabe through his clients at Sunset Grille and Bread & Co., where Watanabe had worked as a chef. When he heard that Watanabe (with his wife Ty) was opening his own place, Zeitlin offered some advice on the interior. From the outside, there is little to distinguish Café Orient from the other businesses in the strip center anchored by Food Lion. But inside, the Manuel influence is delivered through minimalist decor, contemporary furnishings and cool colors.
Café Orient promises Pacific Rim cuisine, with dishes representing Japan, China, Thailand and Vietnam. The shortened lunch menu, served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, still covers the bases of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, rice bowls, noodle dishes and four combos of sushi rolls. Combo A is particularly kid-friendly: a California and a crunchy shrimp roll, served with a bowl of miso soup for just $6.95. I had the small pho ($5.50), notable for its light but flavorful broth and deft hand with the noodles.
Dinner at Café Orient expands the noodle and noodle soup options, as well as the sushi menu, which includes several unfamiliar creations, among them the Niçoise Tuna Roll, Golden Poppy Roll and Dixie Chick Roll (chicken, celery, almond, raisins and mayonnaise drizzled with teriyaki pecan sauce).
To get to Café Orient from downtown Nashville, take the second Haywood Lane exit off I-24 east. At the first traffic light, turn right onto Antioch Pike, then take a left at Richards Road; the Food Lion shopping center is on the right.
When people ask what I did this summer, my standard reply has been, "Feed, drive and hand out money to my kids." My children's summer holiday and the demands of Little League baseball combine to force me to put my professional life pretty much on hold. But these culinary expeditions we embark upon together through our city's vibrant ethnic neighborhoods are as educational and enriching for my children and me as a day spent in a classroom or officeglobal jaunts rife with hidden treasures, right in our own backyard. Pupusaria Dona Rosa, Dunya Kabob and Café Orient were the gems we uncovered on our last such trip of summer 2004, and I encourage you to join us at their generous tables.