If you’re anything like me, quarantine has probably given you a strong case of the travel bug. Night after night I find myself scrolling endlessly through social media and travel sites, yearning for foreign shores, west coast mountains, sights, sounds, and flavors from over the border and around the globe. So when The Bend asked me to eat my way through locally owned international restaurants and “travel the world” without ever leaving the Coastal Bend, I was ready.
This is the third big foodie article I’ve written for this magazine, and the experience has stood out to me not only for the breadth of culinary diversity I sampled, but also for the fact that I ate nearly every one of these meals directly from the styrofoam takeout containers they came in … and every bite was still amazing. Writing this article during a pandemic reminded me how powerful food can be. It doesn’t just nourish us; it brings us together. It doesn’t just introduce us to new flavors; it introduces us to new histories and perspectives. This journey also made me realize just how impressive our culinary diversity is for a region whose biggest city has a population of just 350,000. We are honored – and a little bit spoiled – by the amount of talent international culinarians bring to our food scene. And whether we are ordering to-go or dining out, eating alone or with loved ones, good food is good food, and truly phenomenal food has the power to transport us anywhere.
Thailand & Japan
Slurping up my first taste of the restaurant’s signature dish – the Ninja Ramen – I relax into its warm flavors. Crispy, hand-cut fried chicken breast, spicy ground pork, bamboo shoots, corn, and egg sit atop a mountain of ramen noodles. Needless to say, this is not your college student’s ramen dinner. The soup itself is a pork bone broth with some sort of surprising, secret ingredient that lends it a delicious milkiness. The woman who holds that secret is owner Charoen Kaewmanorom, who graduated from Texas A&M Corpus Christi three years ago. A year and a half ago, Kaewmanorom decided to open her own restaurant inspired by the ramen and traditional Thai cuisine she experienced every time she visited her hometown in Thailand. With a little help from friends and family, Kaewmanorom brought Ninja Ramen to life, from drawing the plans to designing and painting the wall art to building her unique menu and keeping the books. Ninja Ramen is proof that, with a strong support team, you can do it all and make it taste amazing. 2033 Airline rd #E5, 78412
Pop. Pop. Pop. Boba explode like tiny joy grenades as I drink them up through the straw of my Bubble Tea. Their tapioca consistency plays off the chill of the icy mango beverage. Cold, fruity, refreshing – it’s almost like this Taiwanese invention was engineered to help South Texans survive our long, humid summers. The beauty of this drink, as the menu at Happy Tea on Staples proves, is the near limitlessness of its flavor and texture combinations. From freshly brewed oolong over ice, to a frozen honeydew iced tea, to milk teas, and even customer creations, odds are you’ll find a Taiwanese-inspired treat you’ll love. 5433 S Staples St #A, 78411
DAO Authentic Asian Cuisine
Tucked away in a small strip mall across from the Corpus Christi Athletic Club, Yanyan He and Zhou Yong are serving up some of the best Chinese cuisine in the state. Yes, we know that’s a big claim, and we stand by it. Founding owners of Hunan Express, the pair opened Dao in 2018 with one specific goal in mind: to serve and showcase real Chinese food. As Yanyan explains, “there are eight major cuisines of Chinese culture.” The four major cuisines (Sichuan, Lu, Yue, and Su) originate in the earliest moments of Chinese history. Gradually, other local cuisines like Zhejian, Min, Xian, and Hui became equally popular, and the Eight Major Cuisines were solidified. Each style is definitively unique, built on highly involved preparations like cooking over intense heat or braising for hours and days. Each style boasts its distinct colors, aromas, flavors, and shapes. For Yanyan and Zhou, it’s important that these preparations be enjoyed in the context they were originally developed: with love for family and friends. Dive into this menu, but be sure to experience their famous peking duck, top-notch soup dumplings, crispy chicken, or dry-sauteed green beans. 2033 Airline Rd #G3, 78412
In Downtown Corpus Christi, Vietnam has earned a reputation for its luxurious, elegantly appointed atmosphere and richly flavorful dishes. Even when eaten in the significantly less luxurious setting of my living room, the food coming out of Vietnam’s kitchen still crushes it. I eat my Vegetarian Yellow Curry with fervor, devouring the braised tofu, zucchini, carrots, and mushrooms, then sopping up the bold ginger curry with rice so perfectly steamed it’s like they picked it out of a cloud instead of a rice field. Whether you’re staying in or venturing out to dine, a bowl of curry from Vietnam is a delicious way to experience Vietnamese cuisine right here in Corpus. 701 N Water St, 78401
Little Manila Lumpia House
The first time I visited Little Manila Lumpia House in Flour Bluff marked the start of my addiction to lumpia and pancit, two canonical dishes in Filipino cuisine. On this final visit, however, I decide to try something new and order the Sinigang Soup without any context whatsoever. The first thing I need to note is that this single serving of soup comes in not one but two large takeaway bowls and lasts me a good three days despite eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t judge – there are no rules in a pandemic. This traditional Filipino dish balances sour and savory flavours, most often built on tamarind or other fruits and leaves to lend that sourness. The heartiness of the soup comes from generous amounts of bone-in pork that falls off that very bone pretty much the second my spoon even looks at it. Throw in cabbage, green beans, onions, and tomatoes and you have a singularly unexpected fruity and sour elixir. 2124 Waldron Rd, 78418
Japan & Korea
Anyone who’s dined at Dokyo knows it’s more than a meal. It’s an experience. From the lighting to the music, the projection art, and the craft cocktails, every detail has been meticulously and creatively designed by owner Kil Lee. Though this fine dining project got off the ground in 2018, it only opened its doors in February of 2020 – on the eve of a global pandemic. Nonetheless, Corpus Christi has responded with voracious excitement. Dokyo is the place to dine. And honestly, the restaurant couldn’t have opened at a better time, in our opinion. As Lee explains, “Dokyo means embracing different cultures and ideas and merging them to create harmony. I think the meaning comes at a very pivotal time in America when a lot of these things are at debate.” Personally, we find peace in the experience of Dokyo’s Kalbi Diamond Style marinated long bone ribs and Geisha cocktail. And we think you will, too. 424 N Chaparral St, 78401
Big Bowl Korean
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Big Bowl is one to watch. Since it opened, this Korean restaurant has thrived on to-go orders, and they’ve experienced a boom during the pandemic, often closing their kitchen earlier than usual due to the high volume of orders. We’re not surprised. With a menu built almost exclusively on bulgogi (beef bulgogi, chicken bulgogi, pork bulgogi, spicy pork bulgogi … you get it), the team at Big Bowl has mastered the art of this “fire meat.” It might be a sin to say this in Texas, but if Big Bowl took their dishes to a barbeque competition, they might very well come home with the gold. 6410 Weber Rd #19, 78413
Venetian Hot Plate
Rounding the flower-lined patio of Venetian Hot Plate has me doing a double take – is this Port A or a small Italian mountain town? Inside, the scents and flavors of the Mediterranean’s pasta and seafood epicenter bring my Italian teleportation fantasy to life. Racks of carefully curated imported wines frame the bar, hand-painted dishes decorate the walls, and waiting for me at a high top table is owner Linda Haliou.
Born and raised in her family’s restaurant business in Venice, Haliou moved to the United States after falling in love with an Italian-American chef named Maurizio. After marrying and spending a few years in Pennsylvania, the couple purchased Venetian Hot Plate restaurant in Port Aransas just over 25 years ago. “We thought it would be like Maui,” she remembers, laughing. “It definitely wasn’t, even then. But there was something captivating about this island, something funky … you could tell it was a real deal community.” They loved the island and it has certainly loved them back. Year after year, locals and tourists alike return for Maurizio and Linda’s traditional recipes – the same recipes they would cook with at home. As the Coastal Bend has grown and developed, access to ingredients has only improved. “I remember the first time we told our supplier we needed basil, he asked us how to spell it. He didn’t know what it was.”
Maurizio passed several years ago, but Linda continues to keep their recipes and passion for food alive. “We do it our way,” she says. “As Italian as we can thousands of miles from Italy.”
So, what does Haliou’s way look like? Well, for starters, there’s a lot of fish. Italy and Port Aransas have that in common. Haliou is a firm believer in respecting the classics but still allowing her chefs to get creative. While some dishes have been on the menu since Day One, others rotate out every few months. You can’t go wrong with the Chicken Scallopini, Linguini Golfo, or Spaghetti Pescatora. You can’t go wrong with any of it. Haliou suggests I start off with the Caesar salad, which goes perfectly with fresh bread and the house’s sweet and spicy olive oil with a balsamic reduction. For an entree, I indulge in a bowl of Tortellini Linda: hand-made tortellini with walnuts in a creamy alfredo sauce. “It’s dedicated to me,” Haliou says, “because it has nuts in it and my husband always said I was nuts.” 232 Beach St, Port Aransas, TX 78373
The brains and fry pans behind this vibrant French bistro belong to owner Dominque Cordier and her chef, Cole Tucker. Cordier, who has traveled the world feeding a global table, serves up a menu that in itself is a “world tour.” Her formal French training, however, remains a strong cornerstone. The first thing I see when I enter this Padre Island classic is the sign. “Live like a Dragonfly. You only have 24 hours to live.” Well then, I will have the creme brulee, thank you very much. One gentle thwack of my spoon against that crystalized crust and I’m a believer. Silky, rich interior, with each bite a crackling fireworks show on my tongue – I don’t care what purists say; I argue that some of the world’s best creme brulee is born right here on tiny Padre Island in South Texas. 14701 S Padre Island Dr, 78418
Erini’s Gyros & More
There’s something about a traditional, unadulterated lamb gyro that feeds the soul. That balance of slow-grilled, thinly sliced lamb on a lightly toasted, homemade pita simultaneously transports you and makes you feel right at home. Eirini’s seems to have harnessed the power of the lamb-stuffed pita, because they continue to be one of Corpus Christi’s favorite spots for a quick lunch or casual dinner. From the slightly hokey but ultimately charming grecian fountain on the front patio to the speakers flooding the streets with traditional Greek music, this little family-owned joint on Alameda has our hearts and our stomachs in the palm of its hand. 4360 S Alameda St, 78412
Gasthaus Berliner Bear
While San Antonio and New Braunfels might be more renowned for German history and food, there’s a surprising little joint in Beeville that has stolen our hearts. Gasthaus Berliner Bear on North Saint Mary’s street is admittedly a bit of a drive from most Coastal Bend neighborhoods, but it’s a drive well worth making. Even on a Thursday during a pandemic, there are plenty of full tables at this gingerbread-style restaurant; a good sign. Owner Gabi is bustling from the kitchen to the register to the tables, serving up dishes that waft and beckon. “What’s good here?” an older gentleman asks of a 20-something at the table beside him. “Dude, literally everything,” he responds. And if the goulash and spaetzle I order is any indication, he’s absolutely right. The recipe for this goulash was handed down to Gabi’s husband by his grandmother, and hasn’t changed much over the generations. The smell alone makes my knees weak. The taste destroys me. Tender pork and beef melt in my mouth while buttery, simply-seasoned spaetzle triggers some kind of dopamine reaction in my brain. This taste of Germany just earned a spot at the top of the Coastal Bend bucket list. 2510 N Saint Marys ST, Beeville, TX 78102
Irish Fulton Pub
For a seaside bar where you can raise a glass and sing, the Fulton Irish Pub is unmatched. This source for flavors of Ireland is owned by Texans Kevin Doran and Monica Baker. Born into an Irish family, Monica has worked for years as a Registered Nurse, but dreamed of opening a pub that echoed the character of the pubs her family frequents in Ireland. To make her dream a reality, she brought in executive chef and consultant Michael Welch. Having studied at La Varenne Ecole De Cuisine in Paris and trained alongside Michelin-starred chefs, he was just the right man for the job.
Armed with his arsenal of culinary know-how and detailed correspondence with Monica’s family in Ireland, Welch has worked ceaselessly to bring Texans a traditional Irish pub with American flair. A cornerstone of Irish fare is locally sourced ingredients, which Welch prioritizes as much as he can. And if he can’t find something locally – like corned beef – he makes it himself. “I call it refined comfort food,” he says. Built on traditional flavors and styles, but identifiably Texan.
It’s that blend of old and new that makes the pub stand out, down to the building layout. Welch shares the origin story of the expansive bartop, the middle portion of which was brought down to Rockport from a traditional Irish pub in Boston. They built the entire bar around this one slab of stained, worn wood, reviving its history and adding their own.
Though significantly warmer than Ireland, Rockport nonetheless shares the island’s seaside village feel, and the pub offers an unbeatable view of the water. Whether you’re meeting friends for drinks or digging into a plate of fresh fish and chips after a day out on the boat, the Fulton Irish Pub brings the nostalgia of a traditional pub to our Gulf Coast shores. 301 N Fulton Beach Rd, Fulton, TX 78358
Pakistan & Iran
If you’re craving Middle Eastern food but aren’t sure what type, exactly, pop by Sufi Kabob, where the entire expanse of the Middle East region is at your fingertips. From Pakistani and Persian to Indian and even Halal, this menu offers casual eats for every palate. What started in 2018 as a concept project to contribute to the culinary diversity of the community has quickly grown into the Bay Area’s go-to casual eats and take-out option. For owner Aman Ullah, offering Zabiha-Halal options for a community without any was important, and he hired chef Nicolas Solis to make it happen. First-time diners can’t go wrong with the Sufi Trio Platter, a skewer each of lamb, beef, and chicken, paired with a salad, house tzatziki sauce, rice, and naan that’s baked onsite in a traditional clay oven. 7150 S Padre Island Dr Suite 104, 78412
Ara’s Steak & Seafood
Romania, Poland, & South Africa
Ever since Ara Babos’ childhood in Romania, her family, and her grandmother in particular, instilled in her a passion for bringing people together through meals. She has traveled the world, working with master chefs across Europe and North Africa, and everywhere she saw diversity, but also unity. “Our world is as unique as each one of us,” she says, “and what better way to unite cultures than through food?”
Eventually Babos found her way to Corpus Christi, and in 2013 she opened Ara’s Midtown Cafe on Staples Street. Corpus’s culinary scene hadn’t yet experienced its diversity boom, and the restaurant was, in her own words, “an experiment” to see how her European dishes would fare in the coastal Texas community. Bringing dishes from Europe, North Africa, and her own family’s recipe box, Babos quickly won the hearts of diners across the Coastal Bend – in 2017, she moved her business to a larger facility. Draped in warm, rich hues, the restaurant welcomes you into its expansive dining room. To the right, two beautifully carved bars boast shelves of every bottle imaginable – this is a place you can settle into. The restaurant also features two formal banquet halls, where Babos often caters for business events and private parties.
Mirroring this beautiful space is her beautiful cooking. I start with Pierogis – the perfect Polish comfort food. Pan seared and topped with gorgeous caramelized onions and dill, these lightly browned dumplings combine sweet and savory in every bite. Babos keeps her menu moving, though, and she often brings in new dishes based on availability. For example, she’s not afraid to flavor Shrimp Mozambique (a South African dish) with the elusive Moroccan harissa, marrying continents and cultures right here in her Corpus kitchen. A true world tour.
This writer and food enthusiast will offer one more note on this multicultural menu: Do not overlook Ara’s Hot Bacon Dressing. During our visit, Babos brings me a sample in a small bowl with sliced French bread on the side. Curiously, I dip the bread in the hot, brown dressing. The rich balsamic reduction accented with bacon lingers on my tongue, sweet and complex. I abandon the bread and dig up a spoonful. The bartenders laugh and say, “I know, right?” Holy pierogi, this is insane. While the dressing is intended for Ara’s Florentine Salad, which features a mix of spinach and cranberries, I’d argue also deserves to be on burgers, steaks, ice cream. “Ara,” I ask, “have you tried this on ice cream?” She has, actually. I knew I liked this woman. Fortunately for all of us, she is currently looking into the possibility of selling her Hot Bacon Dressing by the bottle, and I am here to tell you to Line. Up. Now. 6917 S Staples St, 78413
There must be some unwritten rule that says the best food is made in the back of gas stations. This small but mighty family-owned restaurant has long been a favorite among Corpus Christians in the know, and I am still kicking myself for being out of the loop for so long. One spoonful of the Goat Korma and I was overwhelmed. Goat and vegetables braised in yogurt and stock, thickened with rich Indian spices … I nearly had an out-of-body experience in the back of a CITGO. Pair it with the popular Masala Dosa, a spongy breakfast dish of rice and lentils and filled with potatoes and curry leaves, and you have a feast fit for royalty. On the side, Garlic Naan (of course), but might I also suggest the dangerous phenomenon they call Cheesy Naan and that pretty much ruined me for all future naans. Please, for your own good, drop this magazine and go line up outside their door – you owe it to yourself. 3206 Tiger Ln, 78415
The Coastal Bend is blessed with a strong Thai food scene, so if you’ve missed one of the many Thai restaurants in the area, don’t beat yourself up … but be sure to get on that pronto. You don’t want to miss a single one – especially not Thai Spice. Located in Downtown Corpus on Water Street, this cozy restaurant boasts traditional Thai fare courtesy of husband and wife team Paul and Pennee Chanyaman. You can’t go wrong with a single dish from their menu, but what we love most about Thai Spice is their Mango Sticky Rice. For centuries, Mango Sticky Rice – most often made with glutinous rice, mango, and coconut milk – has been a staple on the Thai restaurant dessert menu. Thai Spice, however, takes the road less traveled, replacing the glutinous rice with Thai black sticky rice, which, when combined with the coconut milk, turns a beautiful hue of purple. Simple yet delightful, this dish alone brings us back to Thai Spice again and again. 523 N Water St, 78401
Kuzina Lebanesee Grill
It never ceases to amaze me that so many uniquely qualified humans find their way to our little sparkling city by the sea and decide to share their talents with our community. Take Zhouhair Backnak, the head chef of Kuzina Lebanese Grill, for instance. Before moving to the United States in 2004, he completed his cooking diploma in the Phoenician city of Sidon in Lebanon and worked in various restaurants in Lebanon and Dubai, perfecting the art of Eastern culinary preparation.
When he started working at Kuzina, he was just a cook. Four years in that position taught him a lot about the U.S. food business, but he couldn’t help but feel something was missing, something he calls “the opportunity for self-realization.” Taking his culinary future into his own hands, Zouhair (or Zou-Zou, as many call him) purchased Kuzina in 2015 and converted it into his own family business. Today he and his wife Dadoo run the business themselves, and they practice the food philosophy of, “If we don’t eat it, we don’t serve it.” This philosophy is in everything they do. “If I don’t eat with plastic cutlery,” Backnak says, “I never serve food with plastic cutlery.” As a couple and restaurateurs, they serve diners as if they are guests in their own home.
Per Backnak’s recommendation, I order a Mix Platter Appetizer for take-out, with a side of Kibbeh Balls. (Pro tip: six Kibbeh Balls is way too ambitious for two people; apparently they’re the size of meatballs, not protein bites.) This gorgeously plated platter is perfect for sharing with friends or a casual snacky date night. Featuring some of Lebanon’s most popular appetizers like tabbouleh, hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, and dolma, this dish is pretty much my idea of heaven in edible form. A transportation across oceans to a Lebanese seaside cafe. Forks not necessary; scoop up the tabbouleh with the pita, top the falafel with hummus, and enjoy. 3801 Saratoga Blvd STE 113, 78415
Middle Eastern Market & Deli
India & Iran
Don’t be confused by the two front doors to Middle Eastern Market on Everhart. If you’re looking for a quick snack or a soda, use the door on the left – that will take you to the small bodega. But if you’re looking for a fresh meal that will blow you out of the water, you better take the door on the right. When I first walk in, I have no idea what to expect from this family-owned, cafeteria-style eatery. The young man at the register sees me eyeing the sign that reads, “Today’s Special: Butter Chicken,” and says, “Do it. You won’t regret it.” Regret is the last thing on my mind when I bite into the chicken, made ultra-tender by the tandoor. A velvety tomato, butter, and cream sauce complements a symphony of subtly fiery Indian spices, some familiar, some new. 5405 Everhart Rd, 78411
India, Greece, Turkey, and Iran
Inspired by the travels of brothers Jordan and Ramsey, the menu at Ginger Cafe takes you all around the world, to India, Greece, Turkey, Iran and more. While some dishes remain true to their roots, others combine flavor and preparations from multiple countries to offer you an entire continent on a plate. First-timers should try the Kefta Kababs Koobideh, grilled Angus beef over red rice with Persian spices and the brothers’ signature tzatziki sauce. Kefta is simply ground meat mixed with onions and spices, somewhere in the meatball and meatloaf family. The truly indulgent diner may opt for the Lamb Shank, while the snackier among us might enjoy making a meal of the Hummus and Falafel appetizer platters. 7009 S Staples St, 78413
One bite of the Pescadores De La Panca and I have to ask: Is there anything Chef Nick of Costa Sur can’t do? Sure, we all know he’s the king of ceviche, bringing Peruvian cuisine to coastal Texas with plenty of modern flair. But, holy ceviche! Hand this man a fish and any way he prepares it will be magic on your plate. I chose the Pescadores de la Panca to commemorate my last meal at Costa Sur before moving away from South Texas, and I’m relieved I didn’t miss out. The featured ingredient in the dish is the fish of the day (tuna, in this case) bedded on rice and topped with artfully pickled onions. The heartiness of the rice and tuna is perfectly balanced by the light fruitiness of the sauce and that signature Costa Sur crunch courtesy of the canchita, or Peruvian corn nuts. Seriously, infuriatingly good. 15113 S Padre Island Dr #101, 78418
It’s not easy being a tiny Venezuelan restaurant in a region filled with so many beloved Latin-American spots. But Ora’s Kitchen is the real deal, bringing the richly flavored finger food of the Venezuelan oil fields to the coastal oil community of Corpus Christi. While Ora has opted to keep her dining room closed for the duration of the pandemic, her menu of signature Venezuelan dishes – the carne mechada arepas, the queso blanco tequenos – has kept this hidden gem busier than ever with non-stop to-go orders. That tells you something right there. Among our favorite of Ora’s dishes are her handmade arepas (eat your heart out with the shredded pork, black beans, and plantains) and the cachapa, a corn batter pancake stuffed and topped with queso a mano, a handmade cheese. For dessert: a flan you’ll never forget, or perhaps a glass of chica de arroz, a sweet, milky rice drink that’s sprinkled with cinnamon and perfect on any hot Texas day. 5433 S Staples St #1, 78411
El Bodegon Cubano
The road to El Bodegon may be called Main Street, but this tiny to-go only “tavern” nonetheless feels a bit off the beaten path. The relatively new Ingleside eatery looks more like an old gas station than one of the best foodie finds in South Texas. But that’s exactly what it is – one of the Best. Foodie. Finds. A limited but powerful menu offers guests their choice of rice, protein, vegetables, and sauce from a line of metal catering pans over heat. I opt for the fried pork and bananas over black beans and rice. Cue my mouth, brain, and soul immediately and simultaneously exploding. These flavors and textures are music, history, and geography on my tongue … in a word, synesthesia.The biggest surprise of the meal comes from the fried bananas. Their savory outer crust give way to the soft, sweet interior all in one bite. Simple ingredients don’t mean simple flavors when they’re cooked in a Cuban kitchen, and I want to consume them all until they replace the blood in my veins. 2621 Main St, Ingleside, TX 78362
To-Ce-Chi Antojitos Mexicanos
When it comes to family-owned restaurant To-Ce-Chi Antojitos Mexicanos, a genuine and authentic Mexican dining experience is the only thing on the menu. Tucked into the Hamlin Shopping Center, upon entering this local spot guests are greeted by a burst of color and culture. With the plethora of Tex-Mex options in our area, To-Ce-Chi brings a refreshing take on authentic Central Mexican cuisine with dishes like El Zarape and Sopes. 4028 Weber Rd, 78411
Two weeks and ten pounds later, I have traveled the world without ever leaving the Coastal Bend. From well-known popular favorites to hidden finds, our city by the sea boasts a remarkable richness of culinary diversity, bringing flavors and ideas from around the world. From Ora’s Kitchen to Pavani Express, we are, in fact, pretty spoiled. You just have to know where to look. So please, drop this magazine and get out there – line up outside your nearest World Eats restaurant and order yourself a feast. Explore. Let the meal take you somewhere you’ve never been before, because you deserve it.
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