Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Ethnography of Barbecue and Burritos in Northeast Portland

For a town this size Portland has an amazing variety of really good restaurants. They aren't all House of Casa de la Maison. In fact, we don't go to that kind of place much. I'm talking about little family places serving everything from Ethiopian food (half a dozen within walking distance of our house) to Thai, Tibetan, Russian and old fashioned diners.

The really big change in the last few years has been Mexican. Banks used to only lend money for bars, pawnshops and liquor stores in this part of town. With the end of redlining in Northeast there has been flowering of businesses. Ten years ago the area around Northeast 15th and Alberta was a no-go zone. Most homes were rented. Drug houses abounded. I wouldn't walk here unarmed. Then the city came down hard on redlining, and more money was freed up for investment and home buying.

A generation ago the new shop owners and restaurateurs would have been Vietnamese. Before that came there was a couple waves of Chinese immigrants. These days the signs around Southeast Foster and parts of Powell are in Russian. And my neighborhood and parts of St. John's have a lot of Latino stores and tacquerias, mostly Mexican. It's not quite the usual immigrant pattern. Many of the Russians started off with some capital. Some of the Mexicans are recent arrivals. Others have been here for a couple generations but only recently made the transition to small businesses.

There are plenty of immigrants from the Horn of Africa in the neighborhood - Ethiopians and Somalis. The Somali taxi drivers who hang out at the local Starbucks and Coffee People have an inhuman capacity for espresso. Our neighborhood also boasts Somali and Oromo cultural centers. The worshippers at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church a little way away are as likely to be Oromo or Amharic as Greek and Romanian these days. Most of their businesses seem to be restaurants and grocery specialty stores or taxicabs. In ten or twenty years we'll probably see more realtors, insurance salespeople clothing stores and the rest in the way that the Hollywood District around Sandy turned Vietnamese.

This is a sort of roundabout way of getting back to the original topic - the food. Those half dozen Ethiopian and Somali restaurants are holes in the wall. The tacquerias are greasy spoons. Greasy tortillas? But the food is cheap, plentiful and really really good. Authentic, too. A good friend of ours is a recent Mexican immigrant. She says the local offerings are exactly like she is used to back home.

By some demographic measures Portland is the most integrated major city for Asians. But it is one of the most segregated for Africans and African-Americans. The neighborhood we live in was part of Dark Town until a few years ago. Now it's more mixed. So you still find really good barbecue joints around nearby. Most of them don't have names or signs, and you're as likely to get a basket with waxed paper as a plate. But the meat is smoked just right, and you need a wheelbarrow to get to your car after dinner.

We just had a disappointing barbecue experience in a trendy part of town that was highly spoken of in the local papers. On our way there we walked past what I used to think of as a Mexican restaurant. In the next couple columns I'll tell you more about the contrast.

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