Lessons from the Washington, D.C. dining scene

by on December 9, 2017 at 12:12 am in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Contrary to what many people will insist, it’s now possible to eat excellent Mexican food, including tacqueria-style tacos, in D.C., Northern Virginia and nearby Maryland. But this is not the result of a sudden influx of Mexican migrants — long an underrepresented group in the D.C. area — into the dining scene. Rather, earlier Mexican migrants are assimilating, opening larger businesses and spreading quality versions of their food to more parts of this country, just as hamburgers and pizzas earlier transcended their regional origins. This development is consistent with research showing that Mexican-Americans are assimilating more rapidly than previously we had thought. So the next time California, Texas or Arizona snobs complain about Mexican food offerings on the East Coast, tell them it’s better than they think.

The D.C. area also has some stagnating ethnic cuisines. Vietnamese food has continued to penetrate the market in Texas and Oklahoma, but in the Mid-Atlantic region mainstream Vietnamese restaurants seem to be in slight retreat. Vietnamese pho soups and banh mi sandwich shops are popular, and those dishes are feeding into fusion cuisine. But the full-menu restaurants don’t compete well with Thai and Chinese offerings. I am reminded of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which decades ago had fine and reasonably authentic German restaurants, but now they are mostly gone or are shells of their former selves. In the D.C. area, Bolivian is another cuisine that’s holding steady but not advancing in either the number of restaurants or the popularity with non-Bolivian customers.

The broader lesson is that America isn’t going to become endlessly more diverse, whether in its culinary offerings or otherwise. There are natural limits to these processes, and some are self-reversing as immigrants either assimilate or reach a peak influence on the broader American culture. In dining markets for the last 10 years as a whole, I would say the biggest development has been the spread of high-quality hamburgers and pizzas to all price ranges and dining styles, not the growth of cuisines cooked by recent immigrants.

Here is the rest of the column.

1 ABV December 9, 2017 at 12:44 am

I can attest that Vietnamese food in Oklahoma is wonderful. I eat it all the time and it’s just better when the restaurant still flies the South Vietnsnese flag. Thank you US Military for dropping so many refugees off in Ft. Smith.

Vietnamese is the most spoken language here after Spanish. And the Vietnamese are very successful. Of course everyone that watches King of the Hill already has an idea of this.

2 clamence December 9, 2017 at 8:01 am

King of the Hill features Laotians

3 Albert December 9, 2017 at 9:49 am

And also is set in Texas., not Oklahoma. And Kanh/Minh weren’t refugees or anything like that — Minh was the daughter of a dictator; her family was making refugees!

4 A Truth Seeker December 9, 2017 at 11:09 am

“Minh was the daughter of a dictator; her family was making refugees!”
Wasn’t it the pre-Commumist takeover dictator? Those tended to become refugees themselves later… if they were lucky. Which reminds me: how are Laotians doing in America vis-à-vis the Vietnamese?

5 Anonymous December 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm

….”how are Laotians doing in America vis-à-vis the Vietnamese??”

About as well as Brazilians are doing in Ohio.

6 A Truth Seeker December 9, 2017 at 1:47 pm

There are no Brazilians in Ohio.

7 Moo cow December 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

Former Minneapolitan, I know Vietnamese restaurants. I think part of the problem is everyone expects them to offer heaping helpings at dirt cheap. So when one would try to break out of the rut, the cost per plate went up and people stopped coming.

8 Ray Lopez December 9, 2017 at 1:52 am

Huh. I wonder where they got that idea? Oh yes, TC’s 5th rule:

“Exploit Restaurant Workers

Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. In a relatively wealthy country like the United States, cheap labor can be hard to find. We have a high level of labor productivity and a minimum wage; in some cases even illegal immigrants earn more than the legal minimum. But one obvious place to find cheap labor is in family-owned, family-run Asian restaurants. Family members will work in the kitchen or as waiters for relatively little pay, or sometimes no pay at all. Sometimes they’re expected to do the work as part of their contribution to the family. The upshot is that these restaurants tend to offer good food buys.”

https://tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com/index.php/six-rules-for-dining-out/

All the people who stopped coming probably just took TC’s advice and looked for exploited family members so they could get heaping helpings dirt cheap, at the expense of some poor Vietnamese daughter. That extra pho was worth it 🙂

9 Tom T. December 9, 2017 at 11:46 am

Rayward needs to revisit the is-ought distinction.

10 Larry Siegel December 9, 2017 at 11:00 pm

How are restaurant workers treated in the Philippines?

11 clockwork_prior December 9, 2017 at 2:37 am

‘I think part of the problem is everyone expects them to offer heaping helpings at dirt cheap’

Seriously? Such an interesting way to realize how time passes. Queen Bee and Cafe Dalat in the later 1980s (near Ballston, very close to the GMU Law School) were not known for the size of their portions, but how good their offerings tasted. Cafe Dalat’s bánh xèo were fantastic.

12 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 7:43 am

Bánh xèo falls in the category of “things too easy to do at home” and so unlikely to be in a restaurant.

So too many of the things that can be done with rice paper (some properly called “spring rolls” and some not). A friend marinates and broils a salmon, and then puts it out with a variety of fresh herbs, and rice noodles. I am bad at rolling it up, but so good.

13 clockwork_prior December 9, 2017 at 9:30 am

I guess the South Vietnamese owners of Cafe Dalat, ca. 10 years after the fall of Saigon, were just being foolish then. Or not – you do realize I am talking pretty much about the first wave of Vietnamese restaurants anywhere in the U.S., right? And they were not famous for their portions, though their prices were low.

14 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 9:39 am

Just sharing what I have been told by Vietnamese friends.

15 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 9:45 am

Also note that you could cook yourself some, if it is a fond memory. Just order the bánh xèo flour on-line.

Use cooked shrimp and chicken to make things go faster.

16 efim polenov December 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm

I visited good French countryside restaurants (not far from Lyon) in the 1970s, the best-known Vietnamese place near Ballston in the 1990s was, of course, nowhere near as good, but similar.

17 GoneWithTheWind December 9, 2017 at 10:34 am

Exactly. It is nothing more than people making choices.

18 clockwork_prior December 9, 2017 at 1:55 am

‘just as hamburgers … transcended their regional origins’

Wait – fried ground meat has a regional origin? Really? Which one?

19 john smith December 9, 2017 at 2:06 am

Hamburgh?

20 clockwork_prior December 9, 2017 at 2:29 am

Sure, if one wants to think that there was something special about fried ground meat in Hamburg that was different from the Frikadallen and Fleischküchle that were common in other parts of Germany. And there might be – often, the German version of what is called a hamburger in the U.S. includes egg and bread crumbs (of various sizes, including the sort of breading used for coating schnitzel, though mixed in the meat).

But seeing as how the linked text talks about the decline of German cooking in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one can be fairly confident that Prof. Cowen was likely not talking about the hamburger’s regional German origins in this context.

21 Thor December 9, 2017 at 8:54 pm

He did not say fried ground beef has transcended its origin. There are many ways to fry ground beef that aren’t hamburgers, you daft pillock!

22 anon December 9, 2017 at 1:57 am

“This development is consistent with research showing that Mexican-Americans are assimilating more rapidly than previously we had thought. ”

And how rapidly is that? Is it fairly close to what a typical reader of the article would expect given how you worded that? How rapidly did we previously think the assimilation was occurring?

23 clockwork_prior December 9, 2017 at 2:32 am

Well, this is Prof. Cowen as ethnic dining expert – making one wonder if he actually missed the El Salvadoran cuisine blossoming in the later 19880s in Arlington – and how well El Salvadorans integrated into America using this indice.

24 Tom T. December 9, 2017 at 11:49 am

Tyler posted on this point recently. It now seems that some assimilation is evident by the third generation, down from previous estimates of “never.”

25 Barkley Rosser December 9, 2017 at 3:29 am

Oh dear, Tyler going Filistineen on us. So while they may have fled the exalted realms of the Upper East Side of New York, good traditional German cuisine can still be found in many places in the US, with full-of-German-descendants Wisconsin a good example. Mader’s in Milwaukee remains a bastion of German cuisine, as does the more obscure but much better Dorf Haus in Roxbury northwest of Madison.

26 Cyrus December 9, 2017 at 7:25 am

They exist, but not nearly in proportion to the demographic contribution of German immigrants. But then, German Americans were consciously self effacing of their ethnic identity during the middle of the 20th century.

What I want to know are where are the Filipino restaurants. When invited to a Filipino social occasion, one is overwhelmed by delicious home cooked food seldom seen in restaurant service. It’s enough to make one theorize about a category of immigrant populations who seldom start restaurants, because their among their co-ethnics the restaurant is outclassed by their home cooking.

27 Vanya December 9, 2017 at 8:14 am

Judging from the menu, Mader’s is very far away from “good traditional German cuisine.” Looks more like an American parody of German food. Wiener Schnitzel from pork served with sauerkraut and spätzle? A Wiener Schnitzel should be made of veal and served with Potato-lambslettuce salad, or maybe french fries. And reuben rolls? sauerkraut balls? Soy glazed salmon filet? And why would you throw chopped tomatoes and Madeira wine into “Hungarian” gulasch? Do they even add paprika?

Hey, for all I know the food at Mader’s is actually quite inventive and tasty, Just don’t pretend it’s German.

28 PaulD December 9, 2017 at 11:41 am

I’ve seen, and eaten, schnitzles made of pork in Austria and Germany. They are not as good as those made of veal.

29 Oreg December 11, 2017 at 4:39 am

Most German schnitzels are, in fact, made of pork (it’s cheaper)—but they are commonly called “Schnitzel Wiener Art” (Vienna-style schnitzel) to distinguish them from the “Wiener Schnitzel” made of veal.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiener_Schnitzel

30 Tom T. December 9, 2017 at 11:58 am

I think German cuisine has just assimilated into generic “family” restaurants serving bland food.

31 Californian December 9, 2017 at 5:26 am

Here in San Francisco one big trend is the children of Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana opening Cajun restaurants. Korean restaurants continue to proliferate as do sushi and ramen restaurants owned by Korean immigrants.

32 A Truth Seeker December 9, 2017 at 5:30 am

So that is it: In America, the Bolivian aggressor is “holding steady”. Meanwhile, where are the Brazilian restaurants?

33 Viking December 9, 2017 at 12:08 pm

All you can eat meat buffet is seen as obscene and promoting global warming in today’s feminized America. I love it!

34 A Truth Seeker December 9, 2017 at 1:49 pm

So that is what America has become: a place where one can not enjoy the best meat cuts and chicken hearts. I can assure you Brazilian forests are pretty well-managed.

35 Viking December 9, 2017 at 7:02 pm

They are managed well, the Norwegian king’s brother in law used to manage some of them:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erling_Lorentzen

And, one can enjoy Brazilian grilled meat, it is just that there is lots of pressure to turn vegan and save the earth nowadays:

http://brazilgrillrestaurant.com/

https://fogodechao.com/location/portland

36 rayward December 9, 2017 at 6:21 am

My comment at the link: It’s difficult not to like someone who likes food, and not just meat and potatoes; Cowen may be the first public intellectual who is also a foodie. A high net worth would be nice, but not if it comes with Big Macs, filet-o-fish, and a chocolate malted. I suspect pucker mouth is constipated.

My comment was corrected by other readers who added McArdle and Dreher to the list of public intellectuals who are foodies. Either public intellectual or foodie has faltered like the IQ gains of the 20th century.

37 Ted Craig December 9, 2017 at 6:41 am

Tyler looks at supply (immigrants) but not demand (foodies). The best example isn’t German, but rather French restaurants. There was a time when eating at a French restaurant signaled taste. Now, it’s discovering the newest trend.

38 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 7:35 am

The British started importing French chefs centuries ago, as they noticed how awful boiled food really was. And that set the snobbery that French was above English. But they couldn’t hold their own.

Chicken Tikka Masala as Britain’s favorite food, etc.

It was mirrored here, as Julia Child passed the torch to Martin Yan.

39 PaulD December 9, 2017 at 11:36 am

I have to agree on the classic French restaurant. When you went to one of these, you felt you were going someplace special. I do think they started to fall out of favor as nouvelle cuisine took off, courtesy of DC’s own Jean Louis Palladin,

40 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 7:20 am

In my experience, “just pho” restaurants are a native Vietnamese thing. They are great home cooks, and their kids love sushi, but when they go for Vietnamese they are pretty much going for pho.

Here in California I have seen a transition among customers, from everybody but me Vietnamese to a community mix. And why not. Pho is a genius food.

Order the Dac Biet and learn to enjoy the chewy stuff.

41 Thor December 9, 2017 at 8:58 pm

Pho is boring to me. But I like Vietnamese food otherwise.

Malaysia and Singapore have better “versions” of Pho: beef and spices with broth w noodles. IMO.

42 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 10, 2017 at 8:11 am

Do you put in all the basil? That is a strategy that did not occur to me for some time. That and some Sriracha balance it for me. Not a plum sauce guy.

43 ac December 9, 2017 at 7:57 am

When people from the southwest complain about the lack of good tacos on the East Coast (for instance), they are rarely saying that *they don’t exist at all* but rather that *they are relatively rarer*. The average taco that you get on the East Coast is still much worse than the average taco in the southest, and the number of taco shops is lower too. The fact that you can spend a fair bit of timing testing and trying taco shops before finally finding one you like doesn’t make up for that.

44 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ December 9, 2017 at 9:04 am

Glen Bell set the whole country on a wrong course, not to be corrected for decades.

https://www.thekitchn.com/100-american-how-the-crispy-ta-154273

Though now, any restaurant occupying an old classic taco bell building tends to be good and creative.

45 rayward December 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

We have a Vietnamese pho (noodle soup) restaurant where I have a home in the low country, and curry is my favorite. I eat the vegetables and noodles with chop sticks and the soup with a spoon. Of course, it’s a small family enterprise. My favorite restaurant for many years in the large sunbelt city where I have lived for almost 40 years is Vietnamese, but it’s really French (the sauces). I suppose the difference is one of age, the latter restaurant owned and operated by a Vietnamese woman about my age and, thus, influenced by the French cuisine in Vietnam (Vietnam was a French colony). Pho is not French.

46 Thor December 9, 2017 at 9:00 pm

“Pho is not French.“

You flyover deplorables are so cute when you learn the obvious.

47 that great fiction December 9, 2017 at 9:58 am

I was in DC in 2004 and was shocked by the lack of Mexican food and the lack of quality. Same for when I lived in Connecticut recently. Coming from the the west, intermountain west, and Texas, I had just assumed that Mexican restaurants were a staple in every metropolitan area.

48 The Anti-Gnostic December 10, 2017 at 9:26 am

Huh. It’s like different regions of a large land mass are different or something. Like Texans who barbecue beef brisket instead of using the pork shoulder as God intended.

49 TMC December 9, 2017 at 10:37 am

So why is it so hard to find a decent slice of pizza around the DC area?

50 Oreg December 11, 2017 at 4:45 am

Depends on your definition of “decent pizza”. Compared to pizza in Italy, the entire U.S. is a wasteland—even including New York.

51 bob December 10, 2017 at 10:59 am

Let’s move from the abstract to the important subject at hand. What are highly recommended Mexican restaurants in Northern Virginia?

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