Culture and Family Flavor Ethnic Cuisines

By Jessica Joerndt

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — From the spices of a Middle Eastern kibbee to the tenderness of authentic Mexican carnitas, the ethnic restaurants in our region offer some of the most diverse and interesting food types – but their stories don’t start in any store-bought cookbook.

While California takes the cake for having the most ethnic food choices in their cities – more than 90 restaurants in San Francisco alone, according to Business Insider – the Mahoning Valley and Shenango Valley region has a well-established presence of traditional, ethnic cuisines all its own. Good news for the more than two-thirds of customers who prefer to sample such cuisines at a restaurant rather than try to prepare them at home, reports the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurateurs like Nora Hoa, owner of Mobogo Asian Cuisine in Hermitage, Pa., and the Gutierréz brothers of Tequila Jalisco in Canfield, brought traditional family recipes with them when they emigrated to the United States. Others, like Marta Mazur, owner of Krakus Polish Deli and Bakery in Boardman, and George and Pattie Kampos of Little Greek Fresh Grill’s Boardman location, learned their ethnic heritage and recipes from immigrant grandparents and parents.

Izdihar Mansour, owner of Zenobia Middle Eastern Cuisine in Canfield, prepares meals that are a reflection of her upbringing in her home country of Syria, but includes a special ingredient all her own.

Zenobia, named after the queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, offers an unusual spin on classic Middle Eastern foods. Mansour plants and incorporates her own spices, grown in a garden right outside of the restaurant. She takes pride in the fact that these homegrown spices make her food very different than other Middle Eastern restaurants in the area.

Zenobia Middle Eastern Cuisine offers dishes seasoned with spices grown at the Canfield restaurant, say Rena Mansour and her mother, owner Izdihar Mansour.

“We grow lemons, limes, cabbages and eggplants, tomatoes, spicy peppers, and there’s a olive and a fig tree,” says her daughter, Rena, who also works and cooks at the restaurant. She says that the lamb is her favorite meal because the meat is so fresh.

Mansour grew up cooking with her mother, watching her create her own spices and authentic recipes from scratch. Ever since, she knew that she wanted to create on her own and share them with the community, she says. The food is very healthful with fresh ingredients and no artificial preservatives, she adds.

One of Zenobia’s special dishes that honors Middle Eastern culture, Mansour says, is the kibbee – ground steak with wheat stuffed with pine nuts and onions. Her spices add to the flavor, giving her recipe a distinct taste. Chicken over rice with homemade garlic sauce, lamb on the rod and grape leaves are popular choices as well.

Nora Hoa, owner of Mobogo in Hermitage, serves healthful options as well, including gluten-free and low calorie dishes. Many classic Asian dishes are gluten-free and made with very healthful and low-calorie ingredients, such as sweet potato noodles in the stir-fry and grilled veggies. Some items on their menu aren’t offered elsewhere in the region.

Much of the menu at Mobogo features owner Nora Hoa’s Vietnamese recipes, such as pho. Also available, says manager Christina Lim, left, are dishes from Korea and Taiwan.

Hoa moved from Vietnam 15 years ago, and realized there was a market for Asian food in Mercer County, Pa.

“A lot of her recipes come from her family that were passed down, but some of them are her own,” says Christina Lim, restaurant manager. “She serves a lot of foods from her own country as well as some from nearby countries such as Korea. She brought boba tea from Taiwan, and there is nothing like it around here.”

Boba tea can be either green, black or milk. At the bottom of the cup are popping boba, small little spheres that are juice-filled and pop when squeezed.

Among the most popular of Mobogo’s fresh, homemade offerings are the stir-fry and pho soup, a dish that Hoa brought with her from Vietnam.

Hoa begins cooking the dish 24 hours before it’s served. She also makes her own egg rolls and shaved ice desserts, which are decorated as a fun treat for kids and adults alike, she says.

The three brothers who own Tequila Jalisco – Mario, Manuel and Gerardo Gutierréz – based their restaurant’s offerings on the classic Mexican cuisine they were raised eating in their home country. Lessons learned from their parents prepared them for their move to the United States, says Mario Gutierréz.

“My dad used to tell us, ‘Life is going to be hard. Be your own. Don’t copy from others, you don’t have to do the same things they do,’ ” he says. “We didn’t have the money to open our own restaurant, so we moved here to try and have a better future and easier way to start. Since I was 16 years old, I’ve been here and worked for someone else, and that’s how I learned how to run a business.”

Along with preparing them for life in and away from home, their mother taught them how to cook authentic Mexican dishes. The restaurant offers many traditional specialties that Mario makes his own by adding a custom blend of spices and using a different cooking base than other Mexican restaurants use, he says. The carnitas are among the authentic foods they serve, he adds.

“The ones we have here, they peel off the layers, and you can easily eat it with a fork. They are very soft,” he says. “We serve carnitas with real onions and flour tortillas. It’s the way we ate it growing up. We also make our own chipotle sauce. It’s hard to make, but it’s my own. We eat it ourselves and if we don’t get bored with it after a month, we know it’s going to be good.”

Customers can enjoy the carnitas with a popular selection of organic margaritas from Tequila Jalisco’s full-service bar, he notes.

For more of an eastern European cuisine, Krakus Polish Deli and Bakery offers authentic food from owner Marta Mazur’s Polish upbringing, as well as food that crosses cultural lines.

“A lot of culture got mixed in this area. You have Slovaks, Hungarians, Polish, everyone who came in back with the steel mills. When people come in, they ask for something and we try and accommodate that,” Mazur says.

Growing up, Mazur used to cook with her grandmother. After her grandmother died, Mazur kept her cookbook and began creating her true Polish classics and creations. She now offers many different types of pierogi, including the “all-time favorite” potato and cheese pierogi, as well as desserts like kolachi and kolaczki cookies.

“We just celebrated National Pierogi Day on Oct. 8. We have a variety of flavors like buffalo, blueberry and other kinds to help bring in the next generation,” Mazur says. “I also think it’s a nostalgia thing. People are studying their ancestry and want to become closer to their roots.”

Traditional haluski and Mazur’s vegan version are available, as are classic Polish cheeses like morski, ramzes and twaróg, she says.

The owners of Little Greek Fresh Grill’s Boardman location, George and Pattie Kampos, visited the franchise in Florida before deciding to open their own restaurant. George Kampos, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Greece, grew up in the kitchen as well and learned to cook authentic Greek recipes.

The couple opened the business 18 months ago, says Pattie Kampos, and many people are still discovering the restaurant on U.S. Route 224 and are coming back for more.

On Mondays, the store offers chicken pitas for $5 and “I think that’s what we sell most of,” she says.

Other daily top sellers include spinach pie and desserts, such as homemade baklava and rice pudding. Although there’s a lot of competition in the area, she says the store still does very well.

The best way to keep customers coming back is consistently good food, a clean building and great service, adds George Kampos.

“I think we’re more authentic than some of the other Greek and Mediterranean restaurants. Our food is cooked fresh and our lamb skewers and gyros are fresh off the grill,” he says. “When it’s not, it loses its flavor. So I think our concept goes above and beyond. Even our salads are made right when they’re ordered. Nothing is prepackaged.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.