Take a drive down Federal Boulevard and you'll encounter dozens of small restaurants specializing in world-spanning cuisines. We list our favorites from five ethnic categories; all are casual and inexpensive and offer sit-down service as well as takeout. Expect to wait for tables, since reservations are generally not accepted; call ahead for large parties.
Start your world travels on the north end of Federal at El Mercadito, near West 31st Avenue. After perusing the cheese case, butcher counter, and well-stocked Hispanic food aisles of the little market, snag one of the few tables and pick your passion from the lengthy Mexican menu. Choices run the range from racy menudo to lime-washed shrimp ceviche; make room for terrific soft corn-tortilla tacos al carbon sandwiching tasty and tender meats.
Meander south on Federal toward West 25th Avenue, and take in the intoxicating aroma of freshly roasted Socorro green chilies that permeates the Southwestern-styled dining room at Jack-n-Grill. Owner-chef Jack Martinez Sr. prepares the city's hottest green chili daily. "A meal without green chili is not a meal; mine is homestyle and made with love," he says. Other New Mexican standouts, such as the vibrantly flavored calabacitas and freshly shucked corn off the cob (in season) doused with chili powder, hot sauce, and butter, are just as swoonworthy.
Empress Seafood & Dim Sum Restaurant is located one block east of Federal on West Alameda Avenue. This sprawling, chaotic space is best known for its heaps of marvelous dim sum served all day long. On weekends the cart rolls your way. Point to your preference and savor the steamed shrimp dumplings or pork spareribs, and do be adventuresome: chicken feet may just be your thing.
While the service at New Saigon, located at Federal and West Exposition Avenue, is of the tough-love variety and the decor a glorified Denny's, the fresh Vietnamese cuisine is stellar. A big bowl of pho―an ideal hangover remedy―is stocked with rice noodles, a rich and deeply flavored broth, and nearly translucent slices of beef round. Begin with the tightly wrapped spring rolls, busting at the seams with rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and a whisper of mint and served with a creamy peanut dipping sauce.
Farther south you'll see the line snaking out the door of J's Noodles, a tiny Thai joint near the corner of West Kentucky Avenue. Choose from among a panoply of fresh, forthright, and bewitchingly flavored coconut-milk curries, hot-and-sour soups, and noodle dishes, including an exemplary pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand.
Federal Boulevard à la carte
Restaurants are listed north to south; all are open daily for lunch and dinner unless noted.
El Mercadito. 3125 Federal Blvd.; (303) 561-0714.
Jack-n-Grill. Closed Mon. 2524 Federal; (303) 964-9544.
Empress Seafood & Dim Sum Restaurant. 2825 W. Alameda Ave.; (303) 922-2822.
New Saigon. 630 S. Federal; (303) 936-4954.
J's Noodles. Closed Mon. 945 S. Federal; (303) 922-5495