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The many immigrants who’ve made the City of Light home over the years (many from onetime French colonies and current departments) have left an exotic mark tasty enough to justify a visit by itself — especially if you’re curious about unusual cuisines that may be hard or even impossible to find even in, say, New York, London, or Los Angeles. And oftentimes they’re some of the less pricey — even least pricey — sit-down restaurant options in town. Many, many ethnicities are represented, including Congolese, Malagasy, Moroccan, Senegalese, and Tunisian. But as a sampling, here are my top seven favorites.
Warmly lit and exotic in décor, with arched windows, tiled tables, and colorful art, one of the first Algerian restaurants in Paris (1940) is still one of its best and most popular. The fare (which is actually fairly similar to that of next-door North Africa neighbor Morocco, with which you may be more familiar) includes a variety of savory – and even a couple of sweet – couscous dishes with various combinations of lamb, merguez sausages, beef, chicken and more (the cinnamon-infused sweet version involves raisins, dates, almonds – and chicken!). Berber tagines, too – meat or vegetarian stews, served in distinctive conical clay dishes. Sugary mint tea? Bring it on. And ever tried pastilla? It’s spiced pigeon pie with a sugared crust – quite, um, interesting. 17 Rue René Boulanger.
Once part of French Indochina, Vietnam’s neighbor to the north shares some of its culinary features, while also offering up its own regional particularities. A ten-minute stroll from Place de la République, “Little Cambodia” is rightly Paris’ best known spots for Khmer cookery at very affordable prices, with its top specialiy being bo bun, sautéed lemongrass beef on a bed of rice noodles. Other great menu choices include pork spring rolls with cilantro and mint; natin soup, with pork and coconut milk, and a variety of curries.The vibe is lively, the décor minimalist contemporary, and here’s a particularly heavy point of interest: Le Petit Camodge happened to end up as one of the sites of the Islamic terrorist attacks centered on the Bataclan music club in November 2015, and was closed for four months; devoted regulars have been flocking back ever since.) 20 Rue Alibert; second location 4 Rue Beaurepaire.
At this plantation-style bit of Martinique out in the 14th, start with a punch of that island's 50° Clément white rum with lime, passionfruit, pineapple, and more. A must-order is the plate of antillaise starters, with cod fritters, boudin (marinated blood sausage, admittedly not everybody’s cup of plasma), and a trio of minced-cod salads (my favorite’s the greenish, slightly piquant féroce, with avocado and manioc flour). Fish is big, but the chicken in lemon-herb broth and the pork medallions in curry sauce are also great. 122 Boulevard Montparnasse.
On a side street in the Bastille area, Kouassi N’Guessan runs a charming two-roomer serving up his native West African home cooking (I especially love the stone basement, with carved woodwork, colorful art/fabrics, and pics of his home village). Drinks are interesting, whether cocktails like “The Polygamist” and “The Detonator”; Mongozo banana beer (reminds me of a shandy); koutoukou, a hair-growing eau de vie distilled from palm; or fresh ginger juice (with a non-alcoholic kick of its own). Chicken, shrimp, and tilapia are menu staples; you’ll find them in tasty peanut, tomato, and barley sauces. Tuesday-Saturday, dinner only. 10 Rue de la Forge Royale.
Out in Paris’ Chinatown, this pair of dining rooms aren’t much to look at (white walls, bright lights, blond-wood shoji screens), but on weekend nights there’s a line out the door of this Laoatian restaurant. Dishes favor coconut milk, red curry, and/or lemongrass; the pha khao huammit (mixed platter) is fascinating, with pork sausages in lemongrass sauce, marinated dried beef, lemon-cured ground beef with spices, a slightly peppery green-papaya salad, and chicken in coconut milk. Pho bo (above) and lacquered duck with red curry and basil is another specialty; desserts lean toward a raft of foods in coconut milk, from banana to tarot root. A slightly more upscale annex is across the street. 105 Avenue d’Ivry.
Outside France, few except geography geeks like yours truly know about this prosperous little isle in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Still an overseas department of France, Réunion’s culture and cuisine are a blend of French, creole, and Asian Indian, and that exotic mix is on display at this cosy, low-ceilinged hole in the wall a few blocks east of the Place de la Bastille in the Ledru-Rollin neighborhood of the 11th. Not much to look at - a handful of tables, brown wainscoting, and sparse décor except for a mural of a tropical beach – but the proof is in the pudding, after all. The menu is relatively short but sweet – or should I say savory and sometimes spicy, with the likes of curries and masalas with a Réunion twist; my fave's the creole rougail saucisse, a lovely sauced sausage (and also do order the assiette variée – mixed platter of starters – featuring samosas, stuffed peppers, and other tasty treats. You’ll feel definitely and deliciously off the tourist track here, mark my word. 4 Rue St. Bernard.
A more upscale Indian-Ocean entry hailing from the 155-island archipelago also not far from Madagascar, the Left Bank’s “Sea Coconut” (named after a tree that grows a nut that looks like a coco fesse, a shapely female booty) is a hop and a skip from both the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Panthéon. It’s a a low-key, very atmospheric spot with hanging palm fronds, modern art, a sand floor, and a menu of goodies like spicy red fish chowder, ginger tuna tartare, mango shrimp salad, swordfish, curried octopus, and fluffy mango mousse. 34 Blvd. Saint-Marcel.