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Hidden Menu

Hidden Menu

J.R. McMillan

It seems counterintuitive in the competitive Columbus culinary scene for a restaurant to willfully remain below the radar. Even neighborhood joints advertise a little, if only through carryout coupons or flimsy flyers.

But some places survive and thrive on reputation alone. That’s why sometimes you go out for groceries and stumble into an undiscovered restaurant waiting within. Saraga International Market on Morse Road is host to Momo Ghar, whose handmade dumplings have turned the former Toys R’ Us into a hot spot for Himalayan home-cooking. The much beloved Westgate Import Market once disguised one of the best Thai take-outs in town. Both pulled in patrons from well beyond their backyards. They epitomize destination dining for adventurous eaters willing to take a chance on a place that isn’t worried about whether their scant ambiance will earn them four stars or a nod from Fodor’s.

Sadly, Westgate’s Pad Thai street cred has faded slightly since the import market’s counter closed for good, much to the lament of the locals. But you can still find your fix just a few blocks west on Sullivant at Luc’s Asian Market.

Don’t let the “Groceries & Gifts” sign out front fool you. Though mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian, the menu of more than a dozen dishes features the same influences and ingredients that line the aisles. With only a smattering of seats, it would be easy to grab a bánh mì to go. But made-to-order appetizers and entrees are worth the wait. Though commonly considered a Thai standard, spicy beef salad is a bit of a regional dish originating from Northeast Thailand, right where its borders with Vietnam and Cambodia converge. Savory strips of beef served with a pungent punch of red onion, cilantro, and ginger-lime dressing are the refreshing, grilled summer favorite you didn’t know you were missing. Early kitchen hours also mean bánh khot might make a great late breakfast—fluffy rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk pancake puffs with a sweet sauce on the side are reason enough to be a little late for work.

Around the corner, across from the casino, is La Plaza Tapatia, a supermercado of sorts that anchors the Westside’s booming Latino community. Once the only Mexican buffet in town, the focus has shifted toward servers and tables, which are ample—except on the weekends when families gather and mariachis move throughout the town square inspired interior. If not for the music to lure you in, you might miss the modest entrance entirely on your way to the grocery.

Though there are plenty of dishes Americans have come to expect from an increasingly familiar menu, be sure to explore the less common ones as well. Nopalitos are an easy and interesting departure for the uninitiated. The formerly thorny cactus has a taste and texture a little like okra, with a hint of stuffed green pepper. Their molcajete may be unmatched anywhere in Columbus.

The matte black volcanic vessel is huge and piled high with a mixed grill of beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and chorizo complemented by peppers, onions, and an endless supply of fresh-pressed corn tortillas. Even if you share it, expect to leave with leftovers.

A little farther north, tucked away on Trabue between Rome-Hilliard and 270 is a Midwest seafood market that mimics the memories of my youth. When you grow up near the Chesapeake Bay, blue crabs are as ordinary as macaroni and cheese. But when you move inland, you realize you rarely find that fresh-off-the-boat flavor anymore.

So when you go out for seafood at one of Central Ohio’s better restaurants, you can probably thank Frank.

That would be owner Frank Gonzalez of Frank’s Fish and Seafood Market, whose commercial enterprise also supplies restaurants in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Northern Kentucky with the best catch. After nearly three decades, the same wide smile and firm handshake that greets wholesale and retail patrons alike still beams with pride over his latest endeavor.

Now a few years in, the tiny take-out hiding inside is still unknown to many — and it’s truly their loss. Almost all of the square footage supplied by the former offices and conference room went into the kitchen, with only enough space remaining for a two-top, a four-top, four stools and a counter.

Ten seats, that’s it. A football team could fill the place and still leave the quarterback standing.

But that’s a metaphor for the entire operation. Frank’s unlikely expansion from commercial to retail, and then to a restaurant all seemed to lack enough space. But somehow he made it work—with patio seating that pushes the dining capacity closer to 70 during better weather, a curated wine room that should be the envy of any sommelier, and an unrivaled selection of hundreds of fresh, frozen, and smoked fish, seafood, and chef-quality meats—all under one roof.

Whether you crave a working-class fried oyster po’ boy and peel-and-eat shrimp by the bucket, or your tastes lean more toward a “pick-your-catch” sandwich (of perch, catfish, or cod) and salmon cakes with corn, tomato, and black bean chutney, there is something for every appetite and palette. Even the kid’s menu has grilled shrimp on it.

But don’t mistake Frank’s diminutive diner for just a summertime stop. Hearty clam chowder and glorious gumbo so thick with Andouille, shrimp, crab, and crawfish you can stand up a spoon in it, both served with creole seasoned flatbread, will warm your soul year round. And their “small plates” include an order of FIVE lamb chops with a sweet Thai chili glaze. Everything on the menu begs to be shared, whether you want to or not. So just order a few items and enjoy an intimate date night at the only table for two — or order a few more and dine family-style with a group of friends and fill every seat.

Either way, Frank’s will have you hooked.

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