August 14, 2020

Immigrants evolve St. Louis’ food scene

For the most part, up until the mid-20th century, there were only Italian restaurants and German breweries and eateries. But little by little, immigrants from all over the world began to settle here, bringing with them their customs and their food.

Over the course of its history, the City of St Louis has seen the evolution of its dining scene reflected in the successes—and some failures—of immigrants families exploring the American dream.

Founded in 1764, the city began as an early French settlement. After France was defeated in the Seven Years’ War, the Spanish took over the city, only to fail again to France in 1800. Years later in 1830, the United States acquired St Louis as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The city of St. Louis got its fair share of immigrants coming over in the 19th century, most of them Europeans, like the Italians, who settled in the neighborhood called, “The Hill,” while “Dutchtown” is where most immigrants from Germany established their roots.

For the most part, up until the mid-20th century, there were only Italian restaurants and German breweries and eateries. But little by little, immigrants from all over the world began to settle here, bringing with them their customs and their food.

Immigrants evolve St. Louis' food scene

Photo by Spencer Pernikoff. Qui Tran co-owns Mai Lee, a local Vietnamese restaurant. Tran also owns Nudo House.

The people who moved from other countries and have made St. Louis their home have contributed to the change in the city’s dining scene. The International Institute of St Louis has organized the Festival of Nations every year since 2000. Institute spokesman Gary Broome said more and more international restaurants have joined the event over the years.

“Just looking back about the history, it started out very small,” Broome said. “It was probably less than 10 restaurants and less than 10 food vendors participating. It definitely has gotten broader, we have Congolese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, it’s gotten very broad over the years.”

When the Festival of Nations marks its 20th year in 2020, it will feature more than 40 international food booths and is expected to draw more than 125,000 visitors to Tower Grove Park from Aug. 22 to 23, 2020.

Another annual festival that has noticed the growing trend is the Greater St Louis Hispanic Festival, usually held in the fall.

“I grew up here in St Louis in the ‘80s and back then, there was only a handful of restaurants—five more or less,” said Elisa Bender, organizer, and member of Hispanic Festival Inc. “I grew up in North County, Florissant, and in North County at the time, there really was only Ruiz Mexican restaurant and Acapulco.”

Through the years, and slowly at first, more ethnically diverse restaurants began to appear, including Mai Lee, the first Vietnamese restaurant in St Louis.

Immigrants evolve St. Louis' food scene

Photo by Spencer Pernikoff. Qui Tran owns Mai Lee, 8398 Musick Memorial Drive, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in the St. Louis Area.

“My mother started Mai Lee in 1985, so we’re the first Vietnamese restaurant in St Louis,” Mai Lee co-owner Qui Tran, who also owns Nudo House, said. “It wasn’t until 1981 that a second Vietnamese restaurant popped up, and so after that, there were a lot more Vietnamese restaurants.”

Jose Luis Flores, the owner of Taqueria El Bronco, a Mexican restaurant on Cherokee Street, explained that when he opened his restaurant in 2001, there were already three other Mexican restaurants on the block.

“There were three people who already started their own business, but they closed two months after they had been opened,” Flores said.

Back in the day, it was a harder sell to convince less-adventurous diners to try food they were unfamiliar with. But for Tran, he says it’s all about the approach. He firmly believes that the diners who come to eat at his restaurants like to explore new things and learn a lot about the food they eat.

“We’ve never tweaked anything to accommodate a certain palate. We feel if we’re going to be the pioneers and educate people, everybody needs to understand what real Vietnamese food is,” Tran explained. “A lot of different ethnic restaurants are opening up, we’re getting more Middle Eastern restaurants, more Latin restaurants. So, we’re becoming a big city of immigrants, and a lot of people are really enjoying the different styles and different flavors of all the ethnic restaurants.”

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