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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

A World of Food in Silver City

Eating around 35th and National

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Thai Bar-B-Que
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The melding of cultures can come by commercial force or more natural means. Shopping mall food courts illustrate the impulse to offer consumers international variety at a mostly middling level. But for a fascinating, organic mingling of ethnic cuisines, drive to the intersection of 35th and National. This crossroads of the Silver City neighborhood supports an unusual array of flavors, centering on Latin American and Asian menus reflecting the neighborhood population. For the full dinner price at a ritzier eatery, one can make a progressive meal of appetizers and dessert at several stops within four blocks.

Start light with a veggie, carb and meat combination. The fresh spring rolls ($2.99) at Thai Bar-B-Que (3417 W. National Ave.) make for one of only a couple of non-fried meal starters served here, with pork (shrimp is $1 more), vermicelli and crispy plant matter wrapped in pleasantly pasty rice paper. A peanut sauce on the side isn’t far removed from the condiment commonly accompanying satay, Thailand’s rough equivalent to the shish kebab. With some uniquely sweet chrysanthemum tea, you’ve downed something not too filling and are ready for the next course.

Walk to nearby Mr. Sebass (3427 W. National Ave.) for papa a la huancaina ($5), and you’ll be glad you kept room for something heavier. A sauce of fresh white cheese, vegetable oil and a yellow pepper native to Peru is generously poured over cold boiled potato slices, garnished with black olive and hard-boiled egg slices. The salty, spicy, starchy combination will likely work up a thirst. Quench it with chicha morada; the complexly flavorful beverage of purple corn, clove, cinnamon, fruit juices and sugar can be had in varying thicknesses, but at Sebass it may resemble grape juice to the uneducated.

Going from Peru to Vietnam for another meaty course would be outlandish in most circumstances. Not here. Walk across the street to Vientiane Noodle Shop (3422 W. National Ave.) and get the bird. Quail ($8.95), that is. Crunchy outside, lightly smoky and a bit sweet in its savoriness beneath, it’s worth working through the little bones. Another appetizer, boiled sausage pieces ($6), feels like especially firm sea cucumber in the mouth, tasting somewhere between chorizo and bratwurst along the cased protein spectrum. It likely won’t replace the city’s great love for fried and grilled links soon, but both it and the quail go down well with a creamy, slightly biting Thai iced tea.

Heavier than that sausage are many of the native appetizers at what’s possibly the city’s most conspicuous locale for Puerto Rican fare, La Isla (3500 W. National Ave.). Most are $2.50 or less, and three tried on a recent outing were all deep fried. A sorullo de maiz resembles an oversized, denser, slightly cheesy cornmeal fritter; its sweetness is a counterpoint to the pastelillo de pollo, a diminutive, salty chicken pastry, as well as the creamy ground beef mixture filling an alcapurria de carne molida. The lesson may be that downing only one or two of those before one of La Isla’s full island meals will suffice. The subtlest treat on my table, a can of Coco Rico coconut soda, complemented the lot with carbonated smoothness.

If you’ve avoided the temptation of desert so far, how about some Mexican ice cream at La Michoacana (3433 W. National Ave.)? La Michoacana is the ice cream parlor attached to Chicken Palace Fiesta Garibaldi—a restaurant offering a uniquely Hispanic take on fried fowl deserving a separate review. The nieves served at La Michoacana fall in the middle of the continuum from ice milk to sorbet in their ingredients and feel. The chain’s two Milwaukee locations could be the only places here to get a mangonada, the generous parfait of the treat’s eponymous tropical fruit, chamoy sauce rich in chili powder and apricot, and your choice of 25 nieves. Not all those varieties are available at all times, and some are water-based while others are milky. The guanábana (aka soursop) fruit nieve worked well with both a mangonada and a milkshake on different visits, but I might want to try a milk-based nieve, such as goat milk, caramel or walnut on my next trip.

So, you could revel in a shopping center’s inclusiveness of Taco Bell, Wong’s Wok and Sbarro facing out on a sea of tables. But why not take your business to four corners on the near South Side, where pride in heritage takes precedence over market saturation? Your appetite will thank you for the trip!