Travel the globe without jet lag when you visit the West’s transporting ethnic enclaves.
1 Chinatown, San Francisco Grant Avenue Area code 415
Following the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown, never before viewed as a travel destination, was rebuilt with curved balconies, gilded facades, and dragon lampposts in the hope of attracting tourists. And did it ever.
The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (965 Clay St., 391-1188) tells colorful stories of the surrounding streets. For a portrait of today, stroll through Chinatown and you’ll see locals examining bins of bok choy alongside tourists pricing bamboo back scratchers.
At Clarion Music Center (816 Sacramento St., 391-1317), play a few bars on the gu zheng, a descendant of the zither. The Wok Shop (718 Grant Ave., 989-3797) is packed with kitchenware including wooden moon cake molds, and Golden Gate Bakery(1029 Grant Ave., 781-2627) sells the silkiest egg custard tarts in town. For a real treat, head to Yuet Lee (1300 Stockton St., 982-6020) and dig into succulent salt-and-pepper prawns the customary way—with your fingers.
2 Danish Village, Solvang, Calif. Mission Drive Area code 805 unless noted
In 1911, a group of Danish educators bought 9,000 acres 125 miles north of Los Angeles to establish a community and a school that would teach Danish American children about their heritage. The school is long gone, but every year 1 million visitors pass through Solvang (translation: “sunny field”), drawn to the windmills, thatched-roof buildings, and buttery pastries.
Learn more about the town in the striking Elverhoj Museum of History & Art (1624 Elverhoy Way, 686-1211). Hand-constructed by a local artist in the 1950s to resemble a brick farmhouse in Denmark, Elverhoj has a handsome redwood entry door intricately carved with scenes from a Danish folk play. Another gem is the 1928 Bethania Lutheran Church (603 Atterdag Rd.), built in Danish Romanesque style, with a model ship hanging from its ceiling.
The Book Loft (1680 Mission Dr., 688-6010) carries contemporary and antiquarian books on Scandinavian culture; it’s also home to the tiny Hans Christian Andersen Museum.
No trip here is complete without a plate of aebleskiver, which taste like the love child of a pancake and a doughnut. They’re served everywhere, but at the Solvang Restaurant (1672 Copenhagen Dr., 800-654-0541) you can also buy a cast-iron aebleskiver pan, the sight of which will bring back happy memories of Solvang.
3 Basque Block, Boise Grove Street between South Capitol Boulevard and South Sixth Street Area code 208
The Basques came to the West for gold, but they stayed for mutton. Sheepherding proved a steadier source of income than panning, and once a few Basques succeeded with sheep, word soon spread. Throughout the 20th century, when a sheepherder came down from the high plains during the winter months, he very likely made his way to one of the Basque boarding houses.
One such former inn, the historic 99-year-old Anduiza (619 Grove St.), sits at the heart of downtown Boise’s so-called Basque Block. Although no longer a place to count sheep, the Anduiza has an indoor pelota court, where men play traditional Basque handball. Down the street, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center (611 Grove St., 343-2671) highlights history with displays on topics like arborglyphs, the tree carvings that sheepherders left in remote aspen groves.
Basques are well-known for their adventuresome food, and if it’s lunchtime on Saturday, you’re in luck. Bar Gernika (202 S. Capitol Blvd., 344-2175) offers tongue boiled, sliced, breaded, fried, and served in a choricero pepper and tomato sauce. Skeptical? So was gonzo Food Network personality Guy Fieri. But after a taste, he declared: “It’s fantastic.”
4 Tlingit/Russian Town, Sitka, Alaska Lincoln Street Area code 907
Like most of North America, Sitka was inhabited by Native people for millennia before the Europeans arrived. But unlike the immigrants to most of the continent, those who settled in Shee Atika (as the Tlingit people called their home) were Russian. From 1799 to 1867, Russians alternately waged war against the Tlingits and married them. The stamp of both cultures is visible in the landscape and people of Sitka today.
Be sure to stop at the Sitka National Historical Park (106 Metlakatla St., 747-0110), where you’ll find a handful of stunning, century-old Tlingit totem poles, wooden sculptures that identified clans, marked real estate, and recounted legends. The fierce monuments, carved with cormorants and glaring wolves, are painted in bold shades of burgundy, turquoise, and black.
Look for contemporary Tlingit artwork at Three Guys by the Church (235 Lincoln St.), a closet-size gallery crammed with walrus tusk scrimshaw and spirit masks crafted from whalebone. As the name suggests, the shop is practically next door to St. Michael’s Cathedral (240 Lincoln St., 747-8120), which is rich in items from a very different tradition. Russian icons—embroidered, gilded, or silver carved—and highly ornate portraits of Christian holy figures fill just about all the available wall space. The cathedral and its onion dome were designed in the 1840s by Ivan Veniaminov—the region’s talented first bishop—and rebuilt after a fire in 1966.
Veniaminov’s nearby home, the Russian Bishop’s House (501 Lincoln St., 747-6281), has been restored and offers tours. Absolutely take one. Veniaminov built clocks, designed furniture (one of his clever desks is on display), and translated Russian Orthodox texts into Native languages. The spruce log house looks much as it did 170 years ago, with an airy chapel for private services and sailcloth stretched over the walls to keep out the Alaska chill. Now as then, the location is surely one of the loveliest spots in Sitka.
5 Little India, Berkeley, Calif. University Avenue, west of San Pablo Avenue Area code 510
A visit to Little India will make you wonder why Westerners are so fond of jeans and T-shirts when the wares at Sari Palace (1000 University Ave., 841-7274) and Roopam Sarees (1044 University Ave., 848-2642) are as varied and dazzling as ball gowns. You could drop $1,000 on a scarlet sari embroidered in gold thread and studded with faux gems, but you can also pick up a sari for as little as $12. And the by-the-yard silk crepe at Ahlishan Fashion Fabrics (1019 University Ave., 549-1009) will make you want to get out your sewing machine.
The food here, too, goes far beyond the usual. Shop at Bombay Spice House (1036 University Ave., 845-5200) for fresh turmeric corms, lime pickle, and mustard oil. A bit off the main drag, Vik’s Chaat Corner (2390 Fourth St., 644-4412) serves Indian roadside snacks called chaat. Try the masala dosa, a sour pancake rolled around spicy potatoes, or the cholle bhature, chickpea stew served with a puffy golden fritter.
Think global, travel local
6 Little Saigon, Westminster, Calif. The Orange County town with the nation’s greatest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants puts on a grand celebration for Tet (Vietnamese New Year), this year February 8 to 10. Haggle for jade at the Asian Garden Mall (9200 Bolsa Ave.) or enjoy noodle soup at Pho Nguyen Hue (10487 Bolsa Ave.).
7 Chinatown, Las Vegas Chinatown is a misnomer for this stretch of Spring Mountain Road a few minutes from the Strip. Yes, it has shops selling Chinese silk slippers, but also Philippine luncheonettes, Korean barbecues, and Japanese gastropubs such as Aburiya Raku (5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd.).
8 Little Ethiopia, Los Angeles For a half mile on South Fairfax Avenue, you’re as likely to hear Amharic as English. Visit Messob (1041 S. Fairfax Ave.) for a traditional coffee ceremony where beans are washed, then roasted and boiled over a charcoal stove at your table.
9 A Bavarian village, Leavenworth, Wash. You can yodel about 14 varieties of mustard to slather on your bratwursts at München Haus (709 Front St.) and indulge in the custard-filled bienenstich at the Bavarian Bakery (1330 U.S. Hwy. 2). Feeling whimsical? Peruse some 6,000 nutcrackers in the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum (735 Front St.).
10 Mission District, San Francisco Seek out Guatemalan panaderias (Palacio Latino, 2240 Mission St.), Salvadoran pupuserias (La Santaneca, 2851 Mission St.), and markets such as Casa Lucas (2934 24th St.) that burst with ripe guavas, fresh tortillas, and affordable spices.
11 Little Kabul, Fremont, Calif. Scenes in Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner were set here, home to the largest Afghan population in the United States. Pick up a vast sheet of naan from Maiwand Market (37235 Fremont Blvd.) or enjoy a meal of aushak, the tangy Afghan take on ravioli, at Salang Pass (37462 Fremont Blvd.).
This article was first published in January 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.