Immigrants evolve St. Louis’ food scene

Until the middle of the 20th century there were mostly only Italian restaurants as well as German breweries and restaurants. But gradually immigrants from all over the world began to settle here, bringing their customs and food with them.

Throughout its history, the city of St. Louis has seen its restaurant scene evolve in the successes – and some failures – of immigrant 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 and failed again in 1800 by France. Years later, in 1830, the United States acquired St. Louis as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The city of St. Louis had a fair share of immigrants in the 19th century, most of them Europeans, like the Italians, who settled in the neighborhood “The Hill”, while in “Dutchtown” most of the immigrants from Germany established theirs Root.

Until the middle of the 20th century there were mostly only Italian restaurants as well as German breweries and restaurants. But gradually immigrants from all over the world began to settle here, bringing their customs and food with them.

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

The people who moved from other countries and made St. Louis their home have helped transform 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 that over the years more and more international restaurants have attended the event.

“If you just look back on history, it started very small,” Broome said. “There were probably fewer than 10 restaurants and less than 10 grocery vendors involved. It’s definitely got wider, we have Congolese, Ethiopians, Vietnamese, it’s gotten very wide over the years. “

When the Festival of Nations celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2020, it will feature more than 40 international food stalls and attract more than 125,000 visitors to Tower Grove Park from August 22-23, 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 1980s and there were only a handful of restaurants back then – five more or less,” said Elisa Bender, organizer and member of Hispanic Festival Inc. “I grew up in North County, Florissant and At the time, North County’s only really Mexican restaurant was Ruiz and Acapulco. “

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

Immigrants continue to develop the St. Louis food scenePhoto by Spencer Pernikoff. Qui Tran owns Mai Lee, 8398 Musick Memorial Drive, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in the St. Louis area.

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

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

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

It used to be harder 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 eat out in his restaurants enjoy discovering new things and learn a lot about the food they eat.

“We have never adapted anything to a particular palate. We believe that if we are to be pioneers and educate people, everyone has to understand what real Vietnamese food is, ”said Tran. “A lot of different ethnic restaurants are opening up, we’re getting more Middle Eastern restaurants, more Latin American restaurants. So we are becoming a big city of immigrants and many people enjoy the different styles and tastes of all ethnic restaurants. “

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