Earth is a vast and wildly varied place, yet every culture we’ve ever come across has something in common: delicious food.
Even Ireland has a few hits, like shepherd’s pie and Irish stew, if you can excuse the country’s many food crimes — baked beans and tomato slices for breakfast? Come on.
The point is, cuisine is central to culture. Many restaurants transport you to another city or country through the power of food and atmosphere alone, whether it be to Mexico, Italy, India or whatever the hell Applebee’s is. But now, in the heart of Grand Rapids, ROAM by San Chez is bringing all of those cultures together in one place.
Owners Dan and Cindy Schneider — who also own San Chez — have traveled far and wide, tasting what the world has to offer. Along the way, they noticed the prevalence of street food in major cities everywhere. ROAM brings that concept to Monroe Avenue downtown, directly across from DeVos Performance Hall.
Rather than try to capture any one destination, ROAM gathers and celebrates every culture it can. The current menu boasts dishes and drinks from at least 20 different countries, including some lesser-seen options like Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Philippines and Morocco.
You could start with a Bone Broth from Egypt, made from veal bones, mirepoix and fresh herbs, before moving to the Gua Bao from China, a steamed bread roll filled with pork belly, cabbage, pickled red onion and sweet/spicy soy sauce. Then for dessert, you can travel to Netherland with a Schneider family recipe: the Oliebollen, a fried doughnut with cherries and apples, tossed in sugar.
Nolyn Schneider, general manager and son of Dan and Cindy, traveled with his parents and is excited to share the global flavors with West Michigan, as are ROAM’s chefs.
“Our chefs are extremely happy about this concept, because they get to experiment and do things from all over,” Schneider said. “We got a guy back there that’s focusing mainly on Middle Eastern and he did our curry for us. Another guy, he loves cooking European and American food. We got Latin chefs back there who make our tamales fresh. They’re really happy they don’t just have to do burgers.”
And the burgers that are on the menu aren’t your standard fare. For instance, the Nolburger (you can guess who invented this one) has pork belly, lettuce, peanut butter, fried onion and Noelle cheese.
Schneider defined “street food” as food that’s fun to eat with friends, but you can also take it on the road. ROAM offers convenient takeout packaging that makes it easy to munch on the go.
“A lot of these things, like the Chips N’ Dip, you can just grab and go,” he said. “And this city, there’s so much to see, it’s good to have that.”
The kitchen even has a Josper oven, which uses no gas or electricity, just charcoal, giving it an authentic street-food flavor.
During lunch, ROAM is already getting slammed with takeout orders from downtown employees, and Schneider expects festivals like ArtPrize to bring in even more visitors looking to walk and eat. However, it’s also a full-service restaurant, with a wait-staff, excellent coffee (roasted locally by Swiss Mountain Coffee) and bar, offering a solid wine list, craft beer and inventive cocktails. The paleta cocktails are especially unique, all with little Mexican popsicles inside the drink.
I’m a believer in the old adage that variety is the spice of life (well, that and Cholula), so I tried smaller portions of the Singapore Curry and Fish In Chips together.
That’s not a typo — it’s called the Fish In Chips because the lake perch is encrusted and deep-fried in potato chips, then served alongside fries and housemade tartar sauce. The result is a tender, juicy fish fillet protected by a salty, crispy exoskeleton that elevated the flavor in a way I didn’t expect. I mean, who has ever thought of potato chips as high-class? And yet, it works.
The Singapore Curry is an absolute delight in its own right. Tender jackfruit and potatoes rest in a bowl of some of the best curry I’ve ever had. It’s creamy and hearty, but not too thick, somewhere between a soup and a sauce. The unexpected star of this dish, however, is the roti prata, a flatbread that’s somehow simultaneously fluffy as a cloud and thin as a tortilla.
Combining the two dishes was a smart move (Schneider’s idea, not mine), giving a variety of textures and flavors. After a few bites, I was sold on ROAM as an exciting addition to Grand Rapids’ ever-growing food scene.
If at all possible, I’d recommend trying more than one dish at a time, and Schneider recommends the same.
“With San Chez being a tapas restaurant, it’s an experience,” he said. “You’re not there just to eat your meat and potatoes — you’re there to try things. We wanted to embrace that here as well. People do want to share things, and that’s what we encourage here. A lot of places internationally do that, and we want to maintain that mentality.”