This started to change in the late '80s and '90s, with the advent of what Samuelsson calls "gatekeeper" restaurants, like Charles Phan's Slanted Door in San Francisco, Wild Ginger in Seattle, Jaleo by José Andrés in DC, Wolfgang Puck's Chinois in LA, and Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. "These early-bird restaurants," Samuelsson says, "created a conversation that wasn't happening in the mainstream."
All of a sudden, more and more people weren't only talking about these types of foods -- they were interested in digging deeper themselves. Helping the cause was a wave of influential cookbooks exploring less talked about cuisines (Paula Wolfert on Morocco and the Eastern Mediterranean, Diana Kennedy on Mexico, Madhur Jaffrey on India, etc.) and restaurant reviewers like Jonathan Gold, Robert Sietsema, and Ruth Reichl, who delighted in seeking out and publicizing the tiny restaurants cooking those types of food.
This coincided with the rise of the Food Network, and eventually, the internet. Chat rooms and then forums like Chowhound helped food nerds find each other and brag about their culinary exploits, and internet fares for newly launched discount airlines made it easier than ever to seek out regional cuisines in their native lands. "If you cared enough, you weren't just going to the Southeast Asian neighborhood in your city," says, Vitaly Paley of Paley's Place in Portland. "You were going to Southeast Asia."