Most people who transcend subsistence living have a hobby of some kind, and a very popular choice of hobby concerns food. Some like to cook or bake, some like to grow what they eat, some make their own beer or wine, some collect recipes. The plethora of cooking shows on television only proves how pervasive food-related hobbies really are. More power to such folks, but me, I just like to eat. More specifically, I hunt cuisines, and I spice my cuisine-conquering hobby by making a game out of finding the best restaurant values I can.
In recent years I have learned that the best hunting grounds may be found in unlikely places: suburban and exurban strip malls, in particular. For instance, where once there was Foot Locker, now there is Meaza. In June, Ethiopian-born restaurateur Meaza Zemedu moved her eponymous eatery down the street into a former Foot Locker outlet on Columbia Pike in Falls Church, Virginia, a prosaic suburb of Washington, DC. When I asked Zemedu why she chose her location, her first answer was “parking.” Sure enough, next door to the restaurant is a U-Haul dealership. Not that she needs that much extra parking, since it’s the one thing this area has lots of. That, and neon signs.
Meaza is a convenient drive for its mostly Ethiopian clientele, too, but that’s not why I went there. I went there to chow down on the food. My lamb tibs, tomato fitfit and Fasting Season Special were excellent, if somewhat expensive, given the location. Indeed, as a test of the crummy location/great eats rule, Meaza passes. It takes nearly an hour to drive there from the 3rd Street Tunnel in downtown Washington during rush hour. It also passes the strange décor/authentic fare rule: the stranger the wall hangings, the better the food. On the far wall are portraits of Ethiopian dignitaries on animal skins. One looks like a pre-colonial warrior, another a dictatorial post-colonial ruler in coat and tie. In between are gradations of more congenial-looking people with the whiff of colonial-era dignitary about them. They stare at you as you eat.
Meaza was great, but so was another slice of gastro strip-mall heaven, Bob’s 88 Shabu-Shabu, a Chinese restaurant that also dabbles in Japanese and is run by a Taiwanese ex-journalist. The restaurant is based in a shabby, flea-market-looking joint, certainly one of the ugliest in its corner of downtown Rockville, Maryland. It all but screams in red and neon (and grassy overgrowth) out front. In the windows are hand-written signs, mostly in Chinese. The only one in English reads “$1/cup Beer Domestic.”
But like most any strip-mall food mecca, the untoward outer appearance is actually a good sign. Heading inside, kitsch is abundant: a Buddha statue, gaudy fish in gaudy fish tanks, jade figurines, paper lanterns. The whiff in the air and the scurrying of the wait staff are what strike you next. Prominent among the scurriers is proprietor Bob Liu, who darts off repeatedly as we talk shabu-shabu to seat customers and keep the trains (the food trains, that is) running on time. This is a pretty lean operation—another good sign.
“Shabu-shabu” is the Chinese and Japanese word for a Mongolian-derivative dish of thinly sliced meats, rice noodles and vegetables all cooked in a pot on a burner as the diner stirs in the raw contents. The meats range from beef to pork to tripe to clam—or, in my case, all those plus an egg and a doughy ball of mashed-up fish. The vegetables often include seaweed, cabbage, carrots, onions and some truly exotic things like chrysanthemum leaves. Rounding out “exotic” would be an item like pig’s blood ($1.50 a serving, completely optional), intestine ($2.95) or duck feet (also $2.95).
Truth be told, it’s fun to cook your own tasty meal without having to clean up. Bob’s menu describes the effect: “Shabu-shabu allows dinners [sic] to laugh and share and drink and cook and eat all together over leisurely meal”, which makes for a “warm, gregarious [sic] that fill the room.” I can attest to most of that, though you’re on your own if “warm, gregarious” isn’t your nature.
Falls Church and Rockville are certainly not the first neighborhoods a well-fed gourmand thinks of when contemplating his next meal. Yet these and similar suburban and exurban locales across America now boast numerous ethnic eateries that draw in immigrants grateful for an authentic taste of home—not to mention intrepid restaurant hunters. (The unassuming Joe’s Noodle House in Rockville is considered such a preeminent local haunt that some presume the CIA has taken to eavesdropping there.)
The metamorphosis from Foot Locker to ethnic restaurant, as in the case of Meaza, is by now an apt metaphor for where the best restaurants of the new American immigration can be found. It used to be that great ethnic-immigrant restaurants clustered in certain neighborhoods. There were, and still are, the ubiquitous Chinatowns in American cities. There’s still the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, where wholesale and retail food merchants and restaurants all mingle in a twenty-square-block area, and where just sampling the cheeses and olives and baked goods along the way can fill you to the gills before you even decide which restaurant to patronize. And of course there used to be the clots of Jewish delis in Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere that could raise your cholesterol just by walking past an open front door.
The reasons for the old spatial concentration of ethnic eats were obvious: Rent was cheap, the clientele was near to hand, and so were a restaurant’s principal suppliers. Clustering made economic sense. As profits grew, restaurateurs (or their next generation) often moved into tonier neighborhoods, got nicer furniture and lighting, dressed the help a little better, and told the guys in the kitchen to keep the noise down. As Americans got braver about their diet, the clientele of these second- and third-generation ethnic restaurants started to look like the population in general, and many owners bent to their less exotic preferences. The name of the place may still have been Luigi’s, but the linguini with clam sauce just wasn’t the same anymore, and “foreign” food, like hamburgers, began to intrude onto the menu.
The same thing is going on today, but with a big twist. For good economic reasons, the best, most authentic ethnic restaurants increasingly end up in strip malls, because today’s immigrants are sprawl people like the rest of us. That’s where the rent is cheap and the clientele is at hand—and nowadays getting supplies from pretty much anywhere is neither a major problem nor a major cost factor. This explains why, with a few exceptions, the cuisine of newly arrived immigrant communities isn’t clustered in a given metropolitan neighborhood. The upshot is that the crummier and more inaccessible the location, the more likely you will get a good deal and the real cuisine. The flip side of this phenomenon, of course, is the dearth of decent ethnic restaurant bargains in super-hip neighborhoods like Washington’s Dupont Circle, where high rents make it difficult to run a profitable restaurant with reasonable prices.
The strip-mall gourmet phenomenon disappoints many casual food tourists. A lot of people just can’t regard a strip-mall storefront across the street from Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Deluxe Nail Spa (those are the joints opposite Meaza, as it happens) as a place they’d want to eat. They would much rather find the Indian or Vietnamese equivalent of picturesque Hanover Street in Boston’s North End or some hilly corner of San Francisco. But these days, they won’t find it.
For serious hobbyists like me, however, the strip-mall gourmet phenomenon is part of the challenge, and I am not alone. As Tyler Cowen, the guru of ethnic dining in the Washington area, puts it: “If you can get lost getting there, that’s a good sign.” A George Mason University economist and author of the recent Discover Your Inner Economist, Cowen runs the city’s best ethnic-food review website, “Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide.” The guide covers several hundred of the region’s ethnic restaurants. Tallying up the numbers in Cowen’s guide, you get a good feel not only for where the ethnic restaurants are, but, very logically, for where the ethnics are, too. The guide notes 140 ethnic restaurants in Washington, DC proper. In the major adjacent suburbs of Bethesda, Arlington, Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Hyattsville and Silver Spring there are 102. In the rest of the region there are another 293.
You can begin to see the contours of the pattern in demographic and real estate data for the DC area. Over two decades, the re-gentrification of the inner city has continued apace, with a mostly white professional class migrating to previously minority and immigrant areas, driving up land values and driving out many old-time residents. As a result, it scarcely makes sense for an immigrant family to settle anywhere but the exurbs. The National Association of Realtors reported this year that the median single-family home price in the Washington metro region is $431,000, up from $340,000 two years earlier. The median home price in Washington, DC proper is $498,500. The numbers drop off significantly the farther one moves from the inner suburbs. Only at twenty miles or so outside the city limits do prices begin to approach the U.S. median ($215,300).
The U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, which publishes ethnic data at the county level, fleshes things out more fully. Fairfax County, Virginia, which begins half a mile or so from Meaza, has significant Korean, Indian, Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese populations. According to the most recent survey, about 16 percent of the county is “Asian”, broadly defined. About 9 percent is “Black or African American”, which includes Ethiopians and Eritreans in addition to black Americans. Another 12 percent is Hispanic. Fairfax County has nearly twenty times the Korean-born population of Washington, DC (35,094 to 1,830), almost 14 times the number of Indians (42,951 to 3,304), and nearly two-and-a-half times the number of Hispanics (122,492 to 51,900).
What this means is that by taking the real estate data and the census data and putting them together for any city, any strip mall gourmet can zero in on the best few Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian, Jamaican or what-have-you restaurants. It’s not an exact science, but it’s pretty darn close. And if you add to your quiver the electronic yellow pages and Google Earth, you can pinpoint the perfect restaurant bargain in more or less the same way that the U.S. intelligence community finds contraband on back roads in Southwest Asia or on the high seas. Sort of.
That’s exactly how I found Taquería el Michoacano near Manassas Park, Virginia. There has been a near-meteoric rise in the number of Hispanic residents in this traditionally non-Hispanic area thanks to strong job growth, largely in the booming construction industry, and a relatively inexpensive cost of living compared to the inner Washington suburbs. I reasoned from the data that there had to be a spectacular Mexican restaurant nearby—and there is.
I got bemused looks when I showed up one Saturday afternoon for lunch: I was clearly the only gringo in the place, possibly the only one for a while. The taquería had just opened a few months before on the site of an old, defunct Virginia barbecue joint, and word had not yet spread far beyond the core clientele. It was “real Mexican food served for Mexicans”, as Cowen accurately describes it.
I got great barbacoa, a soft, slow-cooked beef that was served with tortillas and mixed vegetables—the stuff that inspired Texans a century ago to invent “barbeque.” Unlike the stuff called “Mexican” that is served at Tortilla Coast or Chili’s, this real Mexican food was noticeably unsalty. You might even call it nutritious, but for its heavy carb count. Except for the food, some colorful wall adornments and a soccer match on the TV, the place is probably not so different from its previous incarnation as a Southern-style hangout for old Virginians. The road leading to the taquería is lined mostly with modest ranches and a trailer park, interspersed with tree-filled open lots and a gleaming new McMansion here and there, in classic exurban form.
I found a terrific Korean restaurant named Sam Woo in Rockville, using more or less the same method. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. This is another strip-mall joint, with a paintball store and the requisite nail parlor among its several neighbors. But inside, I had a great Korean barbecue of bulgogi and pork, plus Korean black noodle, or jajangmyun. You grill the meat right at your table. About a dozen variants of kimchi are served, that most difficult of Korean national dishes, and one many Westerners simply can’t stomach. The kimchi on offer here is not appreciably different from what one gets in Seoul. The room is small and quiet; during the two hours I spent there on Saturday night, only four other groups of diners showed up, all but one of them composed of Koreans.
Ethnic restaurants tend to be informal and small places. Sitting a few weeks earlier at Bob’s 88 Shabu-Shabu, I noted that Bob knows many, possibly even most, of his patrons. A former Washington bureau chief of the Taiwanese daily World Journal, Bob is a people person who loves to talk to his customers. His story of the restaurant’s origins made him sound like a classic restaurant hunter himself: “I found myself making the trip to New York for Chinese food very often, and so I decided to open my own.” It started with the noodle joint across the street and has since come to satisfy other people’s palates, too.
Bob Liu’s story reminded me of Meaza’s, but for how different it was. Meaza came to the United States in 1981 and worked for a time as a waitress at Washington’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. She started running a distribution business on the side transporting injera, the distinctive bread served with Ethiopian food. The restaurant was an outgrowth of that business. Bob’s, by contrast, sounds almost like a marketing plan. He insists that about half of his patrons aren’t Chinese. (I would say more like a third.) What’s certainly true is that Bob wants to appeal to a bigger clientele, which he no doubt can do with great eats and some of the best prices for a dinner anywhere in the region.
As already noted, it stands to reason that the older the restaurant, the more mainstream its clientele and the further from the old country its cuisine is likely to be. I also got to speak with José Perez, whose Rockville Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, has been in business for 16 years. He chose the site for the understandable reason that it is close to the White Flint Mall. He has since opened restaurants in Frederick, Maryland, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Virginia’s Lansdowne Center. I ordered trout on rice, followed by a dessert of flan, a custard commonly found in French- and Spanish-derivative cuisines. It was okay, but it was no Manassas taquería. And I didn’t see any Mexicans eating there.
Being fond of Indian food and certainly having nothing against belly dancers, I tracked down MemSahib, located in a semi-industrial and impossibly ugly strip mall in Rockville that would be unknown save for a cluster of Kosher food markets with a built-in clientele. I showed up at 6:30 on a Friday evening expecting a delicious meal and a ride home in an hour or so. Three hours and forty Hindi pop songs later, I was clapping for the belly dancer, at least to the extent that I could get my hands together over my bulging, satisfied stomach. This was quite an experience, not least for the jarring contrast between the gritty exterior and a sumptuous interior that simply can’t be in North America. The set course brings an array of curries, skewered chicken and vegetables, followed by more impossibly tender chicken, all served with naan bread. Be prepared to eat with your hands after the wait staff washes them for you. There are no utensils.
In coming years, we Americans will be debating immigration again, as we nearly always have. We’ll also be debating the ins-and-outs of ethnic and other kinds of social diversity, probably as we have never quite done before. One of the landmarks for 2007 in that regard followed hard on the Bush Administration’s failed bid at comprehensive immigration reform: political scientist Robert Putnam’s finding that the kinds of social indicators he studied in his famous book Bowling Alone (2000)—membership in civic organizations and voting, to name two—decline significantly in “diverse” communities.
This finding has been a bombshell in academia. As Michael Jonas describes it in the Boston Globe, Putnam found that
the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.
Given the demographic patterns before us, this is not good news. With the new immigration landing squarely in the suburbs amid everyone else, clearly there will be much to discuss. Here’s a proposal, then. Let’s start the talking while dining in the new folks’ restaurants. Insofar as the far-flung ethnic eatery in a shabby strip mall is increasingly the standard of ethnic food excellence, our generation of mass immigration and mass affluence can take advantage of the upside while figuring out what to do about the downside. This, I think, will take none of the fun out of the hunt.