Downtown Columbia restaurants offer tastes from around the world

MU students don’t have to step too far off campus to taste recipes brought to Columbia by international families.

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A walk to downtown Columbia proves that students don’t need to sign up to study abroad or go on an Alternative Break to satisfy their exotic appetites. Crossing Elm Street can be a portal to the many flavors of the world if you know where to look.

International Cafe

International Cafe has a long history in Columbia, occupying a few locations before settling on Ninth Street. Here they have built a strong customer base over the last nine years. Stepping into the cafe plays a trick on the senses with sounds, smells and sights that match that of a Mediterranean eatery.

“We have Greek and Middle East[ern] food, it’s kind of a mix of international,” owner Mohamed Gumati said. “Most of the food we make from scratch … our recipes are consistent.”

Gumati hails from Libya and his wife, Elizabeth, was born in Venezuela. Their roots allow them to create an interesting dining experience. The cafe offers options for everyone, from gyros fresh off the spit to a vegetarian hummus plate.

Cafe Poland

Around the corner on Locust Street, another classic provides a taste of the unusual. Cafe Poland offers exactly what one would expect: traditional Polish meals. The menu includes Polish sausages, salads and breakfast options to complement their coffee selection.

“Everything is from scratch, made here. It’s all original Polish recipe,” co-owner Robert Burlinski said. “The food is like family, homemade food.”

The building itself offers a welcoming energy, adding to the homestyle feel. The somewhat famous sign outside reads “Coffee and Pierogies,” advertising the cafe’s most popular dish, a dumpling filled with potatoes, cheese or meat. Lit up day and night, the sign is a reflection of the roots the family has planted in Columbia since traveling here from Poland.

“My mom is always saying that the customers are our family because we don’t have anyone here. Just me, my mom and my brother … the people are our friends,” Burlinski said.

Sagua La Grande

New to the scene, Cuban cafe Sagua La Grande is already earning a unique reputation. The restaurant, named after co-owner Katy Ugalde’s home town and reflecting the culture of that area, opened Sept. 5.

“These are all of Katy’s recipes from her growing up in Cuba,” Greg Butler, co-owner and husband to Katy, said. “Cuban cooking relies on root vegetables, onions, garlic … you get a lot of good savory, smoky flavors out of those natural ingredients.”

Since opening, Sagua La Grande’s most popular menu item has been the national dish of Cuba, Ropa Vieja. This is a dish of slow cooked and shredded meat in a tomato sauce with a variety of vegetables. To the couple, the fresh ingredients and labors of love that go into the food are what makes Cuban cuisine so special.

“It’s healthy, it’s real, it’s not plastic, it’s not frozen,” Ugalde said. “It is unique. That is where I was born, this is what I do, and nobody can copy me.”

These locations are just the tip of the iceberg that is Columbia’s ethnic food scene. Students wanting to try something new have options from every corner of the world brought to them just steps off campus.

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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