Have you ever had a Venezuelan arepa? What about beef suqaar, a Somalian staple? These traditional dishes, along with a number of other international cuisines, are within closer reach than you may think.
Louisville’s restaurant landscape is peppered with food from around the world thanks to the hard work and determination of select individuals who brought with them their homelands’ distinctive flavors and cherished cooking methods when they set their eyes on building a life in America. Here we highlight just a few of the chefs and restaurateurs who enable our community to dine around the globe from our tiny spot in this vast world. Some have been influencing Louisville’s dining scene for years, while others are just beginning to make their mark. While each tale of their journey to America is unique, everyone we spoke to agreed that they couldn’t be happier or more grateful to call Louisville home.
Mohamed Abdi, Safari Grill
328 W. Woodlawn Ave., Louisville, KY 40114 • (502) 915-0943
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m to 8 p.m.
New to the city, Safari Grill has garnered early praise for the dishes coming out of its tiny kitchen in Louisville’s Beechmont neighborhood.
Growing up in Kenya, owner Mohamed Abdi took inspiration from the array of cuisines surrounding him as a child, his menu influenced by the flavors of East African nations like Somalia and Kenya with a nod to Indian spices and Mediterranean preparations. Mohamed did not arrive in Louisville expecting to open a restaurant, however. Landing in the United States in 2003, he found his way to Seattle, where he settled in with his wife and worked as a middle school counselor until her job with UPS led them to Louisville in 2013. He began work with Jewish Family and Career Services and loved his job, but he couldn’t shake the desire to open a restaurant specializing in East African food. He had run a similar eatery in Seattle while working full time in his other career and he knew that if he were to enter the restaurant world again, he would have to give it his full attention. Determined, he took the leap and opened the doors to Safari Grill in July of last year and is grateful to be a part of the Louisville restaurant community.
“I get to meet so many different people,” says Mohamed, sharing that he has been so encouraged by other local restaurant owners who have come to visit his eatery and offer their support. Members of the Beechmont neighborhood have also proved vital to his business, coming by again and again to indulge in popular dishes like the chicken suqaar and marinated and fried goat. Mohamed may have never imagined that he would call Louisville, Kentucky, home, but he couldn’t be happier to live here with his wife and their three young children. “Louisville is more diverse than I imagined and so hospitable! Everyone says hello and is so friendly,” Mohamed says. “I feel so much support — I love it here.”
Bruce Ucán, The Mayan Café
813 E. Market St., Louisville, KY 40206 • (502) 566-0651
Hours: Lunch — Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner — Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Ask anyone to name their top 10 favorite Louisville restaurants, and Mayan Café will likely make the cut. Over the past 20 years Bruce Ucán has established himself as one of Louisville’s most beloved chefs, his career spent paying homage to his Mexican roots while celebrating the bounty of Kentucky’s harvest. Chef Ucán was brought up in the Yucatan Peninsula, his family’s Mayan heritage an inherent part of him, even now that he has spent over half his life in Louisville. He first came to Kentucky on a fiancé visa, working in various local kitchens like Captain’s Quarters and Masterson’s Cafeteria in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He didn’t speak English upon arrival, but his work ethic spoke for itself, and he soon took the reins as head chef of Timothy’s on Broadway. Ready to introduce the people of Louisville to the flavors of the Yucatan, Chef Ucán left to open his food truck, the Gypsy Van, in 1996 and the rest, as they say, is history.
While the name and location of his restaurant may have undergone a change or two over the years, one constant has been his commitment to embracing local ingredients and to cooking with the seasons, just as he saw his family do while growing up in Mexico. Looking back now, Mayan Café General Manager (and Chef Ucán’s sister-in-law) Anne Shadle says that Chef Ucán greatly appreciates the warmth and openness of the Louisville community. “When Bruce opened the Mayan Gypsy, he had $50 in his checking account. Upscale Latin cuisine was not the norm in the ’90s, and he wasn’t sure if it would work. But the community was so accepting of his flavors, and the support has been consistent ever since.”
CoCo Tran, Heart & Soy and Roots
216 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY 40204 • (502) 452-6678
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
CoCo Tran and her family fled Saigon, Vietnam, in the dark of night in 1975, escaping the communist regime that was rapidly taking over the country she had called home her entire life. She was 29 at the time and spent two days and two nights on a small boat with no food and no water, unsure if she and her family would survive. Thankfully, they were rescued and spent the next month on a large ship sitting in international waters before finally setting sail for the United States. Once on American soil, they found their way to Louisville, where her brother had already been living for two years, coming to the city as a student of the University of Louisville’s Speed School. Over time, many of CoCo’s family members moved away to other parts of the country to pursue job opportunities and warmer climates, but she has never wanted to leave. “I stayed because of the people,” shares CoCo. “I needed this community.”
Without any possessions to her name, CoCo was unsure of what she would do to make a living until a lunch with her sponsor offered unexpected inspiration. Meeting at a McDonald’s, CoCo was amazed by the concept of fast food, something she had not experienced in Vietnam. She took note of the way the food was prepped and how the menu was on a board behind the counter, bright photos making it easy for customers to select what they wanted to eat. I can do this with the food from my part of the world, she thought, and a few years later, with the help of a friend, CoCo opened the first Egg Roll Machine on Bardstown Road. Additional Egg Roll Machine locations would follow along with other dining concepts, each inspired by her Southeast Asian heritage.
After becoming a vegetarian in 1998, CoCo sold her restaurants — Cafe Mimosa and The Egg Roll Machine — and opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Louisville, Zen Garden. Her latest project, the more formal restaurant Roots and neighboring, fast-casual Heart & Soy, are Bardstown Road staples, and while meat-free, they are satisfying for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Regardless of the restaurant, CoCo has made giving back to the Louisville community a tradition, hosting customer appreciation events on Thanksgiving Eve for the past 17 years. “I came here with nothing and received so much help from this country and this city. When you lose your country, you need people. It’s the people who made the difference for me.”
Esse Chitsaz, Pesto’s
566 S. Fifth St., Louisville, KY 40202 • (502) 584-0567
Hours: Lunch — Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner — Friday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“America was 200 years old when I came here,” says a smiling Esse Chitsaz, owner of Pesto’s Italian and Persian restaurant, located downtown at the corner of Fifth and Chestnut. When Esse made the journey from his native Iran to America in December of 1976, his sights were set on school, and he never imagined he would end up in the restaurant industry. Enrolled in the University of Louisville’s Speed School, Esse began working on the side at Casa Grisanti and the Grasanti family’s network of restaurants. It was there that he met Vincenzo Gabriele, who took Esse along with him when he opened his eponymous restaurant at the corner of Fifth and Market. After a few years of serving as the captain of the dining room, Esse made the move a few blocks down the street and opened his own establishment, Pesto’s, in 1988. Initially, Pesto’s menu was exclusively Italian, a nod to the restaurants Esse had been working in for so long. He focused on lunch, taking advantage of the downtown business crowd, and didn’t add dinner service until a couple of years in, serving only two nights per week. He realized he would need to diversify his offerings to attract evening business, and that is when the Persian side of his menu was born.
Featuring the food he grew up eating, Pesto’s garnered the attention of Iranian immigrants from throughout the region; his restaurant was the only place serving these traditional dishes at the time. After 40 years in Louisville and 29 at the helm of Pesto’s, Esse says he still looks forward to coming to the restaurant every morning. “Nine out of 10 people I see are regular customers. They come here almost every day.” Esse still has contact with many of the people he came up with in the restaurant industry and feels a strong camaraderie with them. “If I need anything, they don’t hesitate,” he says. “We have a really good relationship.”
Fernando Martinez, Olé Restaurant Group
Explore Olé Restaurant Group’s local restaurants’ hours and locations here.
Fernando Martinez’s contributions to Louisville’s restaurant landscape cannot be understated. He has opened not one, not two, but nine restaurants in Louisville since 2004.
Currently overseeing seven restaurants in the city, Chef Martinez epitomizes the American success story. Escaping Cuba’s communist government, he came to America as a refugee aboard a small raft in the ’90s. He headed to San Diego before finally settling in Louisville. Having run an underground in-home restaurant with his family in Cuba, cooking was in Chef Martinez’s blood, and he set about realizing his dream of owning a restaurant of his own in America. Havana Rumba opened in 2004, and Chef Martinez was able to treat the Louisville community to the dishes of his childhood, flavors that proved instantly popular, making Havana Rumba one of Louisville’s most beloved dining institutions. He didn’t stop there and, after opening Mojito Tapas restaurant in 2007, he left Louisville and made his way to Paris, where he studied at Le Cordon Bleu. He continued to expand his culinary education while traveling throughout Central and South America, ensuring his arsenal of flavors was rich and diverse upon his return to Louisville in 2012.
Chef Martinez made quick work of opening Guaca Mole Cocina Mexicana and has followed with six more restaurants over the years, each celebrating various cuisines of the world. Having experienced the industry in several different locations around the globe, Chef Martinez believes that the best part of the Louisville restaurant community is the great friendships. “In other cities, there can be cutthroat atmospheres, egos and rivalries,” he says. “Chefs in Louisville cook and hang together. It’s a collaborative, supportive environment.”
Michael Reidy, The Irish Rover
2319 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, KY 40206 • (502) 899-3544
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Chances are, if you’ve visited The Irish Rover, you’ve been greeted by the melodic accent of owner Michael Reidy. An Irishman through and through, Michael and his wife Siobhan opened their restaurant, a Clifton staple, in 1993. Michael didn’t always have his eyes set on the states, however.
“I came to America on August 17, 1984, on flight 241, seat 134.” With few work opportunities available in his homeland of County Clare, Ireland, Michael’s parents pushed him out of the nest, encouraging him to discover the world and its many opportunities. He planned to spend a little time in New York City and traverse the 50 states before making his way to Australia, where he had a job lined up working in the vineyards. Lucky for Louisville, love quickly altered Michael’s course when he met his wife during a night out in New York City. Fast forward to 1987, and Michael and Siobhan found themselves living in Louisville, where Siobhan’s father had moved for a job. Michael’s father-in-law suggested that Michael consider opening an Irish pub. “I told him I was only used to being on the outside of a bar, and he said, ‘Well you’d better get used to being on the inside.’” says Michael laughing.
So began Michael’s restaurant training. He spent time in several of Louisville’s classic dining spots including The Terrace restaurant, the Grisanti restaurants and Remington’s, where he received his most formal education in hospitality. Well-versed in all aspects of restaurant management, Michael and Siobhan have been an integral part of Louisville’s dining scene since opening their doors nearly 24 years ago. Michael says he still loves getting out of bed to come to the restaurant every day and cherishes the close relationships he has developed with his fellow restaurateurs, customers, suppliers and staff. “I don’t talk to people, I chat to people,” shares Michael, which only adds to the authenticity of The Irish Rover experience.
Enzo Lihard, Nahyla’s
12220 Shelbyville Road, Middletown, KY 40243 • (502) 822-1808
Hours: Lunch — Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner — Monday through Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Growing up in Venezuela, Enzo Lihard has fond memories of making hallaca, a dish traditionally prepared at Christmas, with his family. “It was lots of work, but we would divide up the tasks and would sing while we worked, so it was very fun.”
The son of a Venezuelan mother and Italian father, Enzo carried the traditions of both sides of his family with him as his career as an engineer took him around the world. He attended college in America before leaving to work in Europe, eventually coming back to spend time in both Puerto Rico and Indianapolis. He ultimately landed in Louisville, where he started his own engineering firm, the notion of opening a restaurant pure fantasy at the time. The dream was persistent, however, and at first he imagined his restaurant to be Italian in nature, in honor of his father’s half of the family. He couldn’t shake how much he missed the flavors and dishes of his homeland, however, and after a conversation with his friend Nelson, a chef in Venezuela, they decided Nelson and his wife would move to Louisville so they could open the city’s first Venezuelan restaurant together. Just over three months old, Nahyla’s Restaurant is off to a good start, which is no surprise to Enzo.
“This is my lucky city,” he says, chuckling warmly. “It is so friendly and family oriented.” Enzo shares that his heart has always been in three places — Venezuela, Italy and America — but the melting pot nature of the United States makes him feel right at home. “This country gave me my degree and the opportunity to gain a career and travel the world. I was baptized here as well, and I love this country more than you could imagine.”
Louisville is all the better to count these talented chefs and restaurateurs as part of the fabric of the restaurant community. What a wonderful place to call home!