LANCASTER, Pa. — Lancaster Central Market, a patchwork of stalls neatly encased in a Romanesque-style downtown building since 1889, has long been a bustling hub where the area’s large Pennsylvania Dutch population sells the fruit, meat, baked goods and other foods produced on farms outside the city.
These days, though, something different is in the air.
The heady scent of spices from the beef samosas at one stall, Rafiki Taste of Africa, mixes with the tang of onions and pineapple being chopped for salsa at Guacamole Specialist. The low growl of sugar cane being crushed into liquid can be heard at Havana Juice. A Puerto Rican flag hangs near the cash register at Christina’s Criollo, where empanadas and sweet plantains are on offer.
“Malala was here not too long ago,” said Omar Al Saife, 65, owner of Saife’s Middle Eastern Food, referring to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her fight to guarantee girls the right to an education. A framed photo of her and Al Saife hangs in his stand.
For ages, Lancaster has conjured up images of the horses and buggies, dairy farms and rustic bakeries of its Amish and Mennonite people, who believe in living simply, many of them eschewing modern conveniences such as cars and electricity.
And in the last few years, the city has drawn notice for a boomlet of upscale bars, breweries, restaurants and art galleries. In 2016, the New York Post proclaimed Lancaster “the new Brooklyn.” Even in the old Brooklyn, you can spot people sporting T-shirts with the logos of Lancaster businesses.
But both stereotypes miss the real news here: the increasing number of restaurants and food businesses run by immigrants and refugees and the way they effortlessly mesh with the fancy cocktail bars and old-school bakeries. The 7-square-mile city is now a hive of culinary diversity.
“I grew up with straight-up burgers and hot dogs and casseroles — plain stuff,” said Stephen Clubine, 32, a Lancaster native and manager of the bakery Bakehouse on King. “Now we have a Trinidadian place, some Vietnamese places, some Japanese. You wouldn’t expect that in a small town.”
National religious organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee, which opened a Lancaster office in 1935, and Church World Service, which followed in 1987, have actively sought to bring refugees to the city. In 2017, Church World Service reported resettling 477 refugees here. That same year the city, whose population is about 60,000, took in 20 times more refugees per capita than any other in the United States, according to the Lancaster City Alliance, an organization devoted to the city’s development.
Today, Nepalese aloo bodi tama — a spicy black-eyed-pea soup with potatoes, turmeric and cumin — is just as easy to find as a molasses-filled shoofly pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch classic.
Sudershan Adhikari, 29, an owner of the Indian and Nepali restaurant Namaste, arrived in Lancaster in 2017 from Vermont, after fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Nepalis in Bhutan in 1990. He trained to be a tractor-trailer driver, but the job bored him, so he took up an occupation that relatives here told him required no training: restaurateur.
The fiery, meat-stuffed momos Adhikari serves are a far cry from the mashed potatoes and casseroles that figure heavily in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. But when Namaste opened, he said, locals embraced the food.
The same is true at Issei Noodle. Robert Pham, a Vietnamese refugee, and his wife, Naomi, who grew up in Japan, opened a restaurant in 2008 in Carlisle, about 60 miles to the west. Their son Andre Pham and his wife, Donna, opened a Lancaster location in 2014.
The menu unites the family’s dual heritage, with pho and ramen sharing equal billing. The restaurant’s bright, unapologetic flavors have proved so popular that in June, the Phams opened a stand in the Central Market.
Bernard Truong, 41, an owner of the restaurants Sprout of Rice & Noodles and Rice & Noodles, never imagined he would stay in Lancaster this long. His family — including his in-laws, Chau and Anh-Thu Cao, who fled Saigon as the Vietnam War was ending in 1975 — came from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and opened a restaurant.
“Then we didn’t leave,” he said. “The welcoming of everybody around here, the importance of family. We saw it in our business growing. It seemed like we were helping to change the food culture.” The customers who now stream into Sprout for dinner seem quite fluent in pho ga and thit nuong.
If there is any discomfort with this culinary diversity, it seems to come mainly from unfamiliarity.
“I’m used to this kind of eating,” Faye Hess, 68, a clerk at Shady Maple bakery in Lancaster Central Market, said one recent afternoon, pointing at a Whoopie Pie. “I don’t eat Vietnamese or Thai food. I don’t even know what they taste like.”
A few aisles down, an Amish bakery owner (who asked not to be identified) glanced around at all the new stalls and sighed. “I miss the way things used to be,” he said.