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By Makala Bach, Slow Food Youth Network USA

Uncle Sam’s Immigrant Cafe was launched with the mission to showcase immigrant restaurateurs in pursuit of their American Dream.

Ajay Ravindranathan remembers the exact moment he had his first taste of ethnic food. He was a little boy on a flight to Tokyo with some wasabi on his plate. “I ate it all in one bite”, said Ajay, chuckling at the memory. The shock following the moment it hit his tongue left him with tears in his eyes and a lifelong fascination with ethnic food.

Ajay grew up in India and moved to the United States to pursue his graduate degree at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He felt welcomed to the United States right away, even attending his very first American Thanksgiving that fall with his college roommate. It was there in Salt Lake City, surrounded by graduate students from over one hundred countries eager to share their food and culture, where Ajay really started to explore ethnic food. In his free time, he began to investigate the local food scene. To his surprise, he discovered some of the best ethnic food he had ever had, made by Vietnamese and Mexican restaurateurs who had immigrated to Salt Lake City. Aware of the skepticism others might have of the Salt Lake City food scene, Ajay couldn’t help but interject, “You’d be surprised where you can find good ethnic food in America.”

Eventually, Ajay graduated and moved to the Bay Area in California. In the past five years, he has noticed attitudes toward immigrants start to change. No longer are they as welcome in the United States as he had been. “All of a sudden the word ‘immigrant’ was a bad word almost,” reflected Ajay. But he knew that immigrant restaurateurs work tirelessly to pursue their “American Dream.” Not only are they sharing new cultures and cuisines within the United States, they are now faced with a less welcome environment. Ajay felt called to do what he could to help.

The website Uncle Sam’s Immigrant Cafe was launched in 2017 with the mission to showcase immigrant restaurateurs in pursuit of their American Dream. Volunteer writers from across the United States are asked to submit pieces telling the story of their favorite immigrant-owned restaurant. Stories are published to the website and readers are asked to patronize these restaurants. “Our hope is for this website to celebrate American diversity… to show that despite our differences, we are one country where everyone dreams of a better life,” Ajay proclaimed with a warm smile.

To date, Uncle Sam’s Immigrant Cafe has featured over 70 restaurants across 21 states. Almost 40 different countries are represented on the website from the Cameroon inspired food truck ‘African Chop’ in Los Angeles, to the Turkish flavors of ‘Sumela Restaurant’ in High Point, NC. Ajay and his volunteers have proven that excellent ethnic food can be found across the United States. 
When asked how he had decided on a name for the website, he replied, “Uncle Sam is as American as apple pie, and we wanted to suggest that immigrants are as American as apple pie, and an integral part of the fabric of American society.” 

If you’re interested in supporting Uncle Sam’s Immigrant Cafe, patronize one of the restaurants featured on the website. If you’re interested in featuring a favorite restaurant of your own and would like to contribute, you can reach Ajay at info@usimmigrantcafe.org or via the contact page on his website: www.usimmigrantcafe.org

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