Americans have a vacation problem and here's what it is: We can't get to Xi'an to eat hand-slapped biang biang noodles for a week and eat cochinita pibil pulled from the ground on the Yucatan peninsula and enjoy an Argentine parillada feast with endless enormous steaks. Two weeks a year just isn't enough time. Two weeks, if we can get it, is barely enough to visit one of these food paradises, not to mention all them. (Shakes fist at Europeans and Australians and their endless vacation time.)
The good news is that if your main travel motivation is culinary and you're strapped for time, there's a plan B: Eat far-flung foods without getting on a plane for 16 hours.
Migration patterns have led some of the best chefs around the world to set up right here in North America. Sure, eating Italian food in San Francisco isn't quite the same as touring Tuscan hills, but hey — there are still hills. And ham. And the flight is two hours instead of 14 (at least if you're based in Seattle, like I am).
So, where to go? We've picked a few of our favorite unexpected places to find incredible food from around the world: From Chinese food in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Middle Eastern food in Dearborn, Michigan, to authentic Mexican food in Austin, Texas, you can taste the world without leaving North America.
1. If you want to eat Chinese food, go to Vancouver, B.C.
Or more specifically Richmond. This suburb of Vancouver has one of the densest populations of Chinese people in North America — and one of the densest populations of Chinese restaurants, too. If you're flying into Vancouver, you're already there; it's where the airport is. If not, a quick Skytrain ride from downtown will drop you off in the middle of Shanghai — wait, no, it's No. 3 Road.
Here, you can stroll from the halal food of Xinjiang in Western China at Silkway Halal to truffle-imbued high-end Hong Kong dim sum at Chef Tony Seafood in a matter of blocks. Food courts like the Richmond Public Market and Aberdeen Centre bring Sichuanese street food into proximity with trendy Taiwanese tea shops. China may still be a 14-hour plane ride away, but some of the world's best Chinese food is right here.
2. If you want to eat Middle Eastern food, go to Dearborn, Michigan.
Like so much in Michigan, the Arab-American population of Dearborn, a city that's part of the Detroit metro area, is due to the car industry. The first wave of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants came at the end of the 19th century, and they've been followed by waves of Iraqi, Yemeni, Palestinian, and many other immigrants — each bringing with them nuanced cuisines. Here you'll find hummus, an endless variety of meat on sticks, and rice pilafs scattered with nuts and fruits and awash in waves of heady spices.
Get a big group to sit down to an endless parade of bright-green herb salads, kibbeh (both fried and raw), and plate after plate of pickles and dips at Al Ameer. Head down Warren Avenue for Golden Bakery's shawarma, then detour to compare it to King's Bakery's soujouk (Lebanese sausage) before washing it all down with pistachio ice cream at Shatila.
3. If you want to eat Indian food, go to Chicago, Illinois.
West Devon (pronounced dee-VAHN) Avenue runs along the northern city limits of Chicago and holds a subcontinent's worth of cuisine along its main business corridor. Between the colorful cloth in the windows of the sari shops and the racks of Bollywood movies for sale, feasts await.
Dig into the Pakistani specialty for which Sabri Nihari is named, a deep red spicy beef stew, or try Khan BBQ for Pakistani chicken skewers. Udupi Palace brings south Indian vegetarian cuisine to the meaty Midwest, with excellent idli (rice pancakes), or try the region's snack foods at Uru-Swati. Finish off with Indian sweets at Sukhadia or Tahoora, then drop by the country's largest Indian grocer, Patel Brothers, for ingredients to take with you and recreate everything you tasted at home.
4. If you want to eat Italian food, go to San Francisco, California.
The red-sauce-and-meatballs-the-size-of-a-tennis-ball cuisine that dominates the U.S. East Coast has its own place in the canon of Italian-American food, but for the kind of pure, regional Italian specialties that come out at small-town trattorias and big Roman restaurants, San Francisco wins.
Head to La Ciccia for seafood specialties of Sardinia, or sample the cuisine of the first European immigrants in the area at North Beach classic Liguria Bakery. In between, Neapolitan pizzas fight for street corner space with Roman bistros. The similarities between the Mediterranean and California meld together, making it hard to separate Northern Californian cuisine from Italian cuisine, but everyone benefits from the incredible pastas at places like Flour & Water and Cotogna.
5. If you want to eat Mexican food, got to Austin, Texas
If you're flying to Austin, you're not all that far from just going to Mexico (and that's worth the trip), but if you're driving or don't have a passport, or for whatever reason need the next best thing, Austin is there for you. While Austin's food claims to fame mostly tend to be barbecue or Tex-Mex-focused, they've also got plenty of traditional Mexican food.
Oaxcan food scholar and expert chef Iliana de la Vega's El Naranjo leads the way with its deeply flavored moles and handmade tortillas for a sit-down feast. While most of Austin's taco trucks focus on the local style, Las Trancas offers Mexico City-style street tacos: small but mighty and happy to kick the butt of the Texan flour tortilla-wrapped specimens everywhere else. And Texas may be famous for its brisket barbecue, but places like El Borrego de Oro and Taco More do a pretty mean Mexican pit-cooked barbacoa.
And there's plenty more out there! What are some of your favorite places to get away without getting too far away?