Friday, May 12, 2006

Revisiting old topics: Portland Barbecue and the Geography of the Burrito

Long ago I wrote about barbecue in Portland and promised to talk about burritos. I'm finally getting around to it, and it's an interesting story.

One of the first things immigrants do is find ways to make money. A classic one is to sell food. It might be scraping together the money to buy a 7-11 franchise or open a grocery store. Those with more hope than is realistic open restaurants. As near as I can tell they fail more often than anything except martial arts schools.

Now, Portland is a strange city. By most measures it is the most integrated US city for Asians and the most segregated for African-Americans. I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure it's responsible for the concentration of barbecue and Southern cooking in our part of town and the ubiquity of Pho, Thai food, Bento, Sushi and bad Chinese everywhere else.

Of course, there are still concentrations of Asian communities here. The Hollywood district has a lot of Vietnamese businesses. There is still a mile or two of really scary Chinese restaurants out on SE 82nd, recently joined by the equally dodgy Hung Far Low (I swear to G-d I'm not making that name up)that used to be downtown. But on the whole, Asian food has spread all over the city. I particularly welcome the opening of the Malay Satay Hut in the Fubon Pan-Asian shopping center and supermarket on 82nd.

What does this have to do with burritos? More than you would think.

Fifteen years ago there really wasn't much Mexican food in Portland. Taco Bell doesn't count. With one or two notable exceptions (Lil Mexico, La Caretta, etc.) the only good Mexican food was out in Hillsboro where there were many Hispanic farm workers.

Over the intervening years we've seen places start to pop up. When contractors started hiring large numbers of Latin Americans we started to notice lunch carts switch from stereotypically American food to tacos and burritos. Some neighborhoods began to sprout taquerias: St. John's, Alberta, and others. They were followed or accompanied by ethnic specialty shops, bakeries, Spanish-language video stores and everything else you'd expect. Meanwhile several of the late and unlamented taco y burrito gringo joints have gone under, pushed out by better and more authentic vendors.

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