Taste the world in America’s heartland city.
By Maggie Hennessy
If not for the 30-foot-high entryway sign marked “International Marketplace”
as you cross High School Road on West 38th Street on Indianapolis’ far Northwest side, you might think you were entering just another sprawling Midwestern strip mall neighborhood. But this area sandwiched between I-65 and the I-465 beltway is far from ordinary. Dotted among the pawnshops, tanning salons and car dealerships are more than 125 immigrant-owned restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores representing the cuisines of five continents. Seventy languages are spoken here. And on most Saturdays, parking is near impossible as diners flock from across the state and beyond to get their fill of authentic Greek, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Sichuan, Ethiopian, Japanese, Peruvian, Mexican and Cuban food. So, how did the former Lafayette Square neighborhood, known best for deserted storefronts and purportedly high crime rates, become an officially designated international destination?
Lafayette Square Mall, the expansive indoor shopping center from which the neighborhood got its nickname, opened in 1968. It enjoyed three prosperous decades before age, increased competition from higher-end shopping centers and a reputation for high crime triggered a mass exodus of big- and small-box stores and chain restaurants from the mall and the surrounding area. “We realized we were starting to lose Toys ‘R’ Us, Kmart—all the big boxes were leaving,” says Mary Clark, executive director of the International Marketplace Coalition. In 2004, Indiana Gov. Joseph Kernan designated Lafayette Square a Community Revitalization
Enhancement District as a means to encourage investment in the blighted area, but it wasn’t generating enough sales to qualify for a $750,000 annual tax credit. Clark, then a bank branch manager, began talking to local business owners about how to “stop the bleeding.” In 2005, she and a few other business and cultural leaders formed the nonprofit Lafayette Square Area Coalition with the aim of revitalizing the neighborhood. Their first project was a petition to bring Wal-Mart to Lafayette Square.
Meanwhile, the makeup of the area was quietly changing, too, as more and more immigrants from Central and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia started settling in and around Lafayette Square. For those looking to start a business, an abandoned store in a rundown strip mall had something great going for it: low rent.
“In the midst of all that excitement over Wal-Mart—which
opened in 2008—something else was happening that we were
somewhat oblivious to,” Clark says. “The empty big and little boxes
were getting filled up by immigrant owners and shopkeepers,
who were mostly opening restaurants.”
Those immigrants included Abraham Belachew, who moved
from Ethiopia with his family in 1996. He drove a taxicab for
several years before opening Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant in
2003 in a former Payless shoe store on West 38th Street. But he
quickly found that more than his fellow immigrants were coming
in for traditional fare such as beef sauteed with vegetables in awaze
(Ethiopian hot sauce), chicken legs or red lentils stewed in berbere
(spice paste), tangy housemade injera bread and coffee ceremonies
featuring house-roasted Ethiopian coffee.
“I think a lot of people learned about our place through
friends,” Belachew, who is also the chef, says. “And by the time
they come to the restaurant a second time, they’re considered
A mile and a half away, India Palace Restaurant, owned by Dave
Samra, the son of Indian immigrants, serves the North Indian cuisine
the family grew up eating, and specializes in tandoori dishes. India
Palace is across the street from King Wok, a Vietnamese restaurant
where complexly spiced, tripe-laced pho regularly attracts chefs
such as Neal Brown, James Beard-nominated chef/owner of The
Libertine and Pizzology.
Chefs were among the early patrons of the International
Marketplace’s ethnic restaurants, Brown notes. “Maybe 15 years
ago, you started to hear about all these little ethnic restaurants
with incredible food from chefs, so we’d try them out on Sundays
when a lot of restaurants are closed. Next thing you know, word
For chefs, Brown says the area offers much more than just
a delicious meal, adding that going out to eat and working are
never mutually exclusive for a chef. “And for a lot of us who can’t
afford to travel to Hong Kong, Beijing or Italy for inspiration,
this is where we go to find honest representations of ethnic food.”
Another of Brown’s haunts is the sprawling Szechwan Garden,
opened in an old go-cart facility in 2007. It offers hearty Sichuan
specialties ranging from chili-oil-slicked dan dan noodles to beef
in piquant Sichuan broth and silky Ma Po tofu—with customizable
spice levels for those not used to the region’s namesake fiery chili.
Two years ago, the restaurant added dim sum, which longtime
server Libby Wang says has become the solution for devotees who
used to drive all the way to Chicago. “Before we started dim sum,
many customers would make the three-hour drive to Chinatown
in Chicago each week to get it, but not anymore,” she says. “Our
shrimp dumplings, shumai, shrimp rolls and pork rolls are all
made fresh by our chef. I think it’s better than anything you can
get in Chicago.”
lifting up residents
In 2013, the city issued a special resolution designating the
area as “Indianapolis International Marketplace.” As the area
has evolved, the Lafayette Square Area Coalition—rebranded
the International Marketplace Coalition in 2011—has refocused
its efforts on promoting the area’s diversity. In 2014, it erected
entryway structures at the marketplace’s borders—placing the
other two at Commercial Drive just east of 38th and Lafayette
Road, and on Lafayette at 46th Street.
The coalition will hold its ninth annual Taste the Difference
festival this year, with a goal of 3,000 attendees. Some 2,000
came to last year’s event, which featured sample dishes from
26 restaurants, performances by 21 ethnic groups and 70 vendor
booths. Each month, the coalition also hosts international lunch
tours, inviting Indianapolis residents to share a meal at a different
International Marketplace restaurant.
But it has goals beyond showcasing the restaurants that helped
form the marketplace. In the coming years, the coalition aims to
build an international cultural center and erect multifamily housing.
“We have figured out that for the area to really become viable
for Indianapolis, we can’t just lift up the businesses, we have to
lift up the people living in the surrounding areas,” Clark says
In the meantime, the restaurants keep coming. A Yemeni
restaurant plans to open in the area, followed by a French bakery.
Moreover, a two-year-old West African restaurant is clamoring
to move to red-hot 38th Street from its current location outside
the marketplace, Clark adds.
For a city with a relatively young culinary heritage, this
area is key to helping build a strong legacy, Brown says. “Our
agriculture runs deep, but it’s only been in the last five years
or so that Indianapolis has become more of a national dining
destination. For me, at least, the ethnic restaurants were very
much the front-runners of that scene we’re experiencing now.”