The Food Issue

Ethnic Goes Exurban

By Tyler Cowen
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Little more than a decade ago, the quest for a dosa meant going to the District. That staple of south Indian cooking, the masala dosa (fry a moist mix of ground lentils and rice into a long, waferlike form, and stick something like potatoes inside), was a rare commodity in the Washington area.

Today, dozens of local restaurants serve dosas. The Indian restaurant Minerva, located in Fairfax, has 11 different dosas on its menu, stuffed with chutneys, spinach, onions, chicken and lamb in addition to potatoes. In much of outside-the-Beltway Virginia, where I do most of my eating these days, it's easier to find a good dosa than a decent hamburger.

If we are what we eat, this simple parable of the dosa reflects how rapidly our region has changed. Ethnic eating has gone exurban, tracking the march of immigration and the growth of small businesses from inner city to inner suburb and finally to exurbs that were virtually all-white rural outposts with cornfields just a decade ago; it has moved from Northwest D.C. to redefine dining throughout the sprawling Washington region.

I know, because since I came here 26 years ago to study at George Mason University, I've been eating my way all over Washington. I started in the Latin and Ethiopian dives of Adams Morgan in the 1980s. In the '90s, I circled the Beltway to find the Indian and Chinese restaurants that newcomers were opening in Rockville and Silver Spring. Today, I'm most likely to travel out to malls in Chantilly, Centreville and Herndon for the most authentic Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and Korean food. An economist by day and a diner by night, I've gradually gained knowledge of exurbia while becoming an expert on ethnic food.

One commonly held belief is that Washington area dining has been driven by refugees from political crises around the world. Back in the '80s there was some truth to this theory, when the new urban chic involved sharing a platter of lamb tibs around a basket-woven table in Adams Morgan's Ethiopian enclave. But we see no swarm of Iraqi restaurants today (there was one in Herndon -- Zuhair's -- but it closed after about a year in business); nor has civil war in Somalia brought platters of muffo patties to D.C. tables. Indeed, the cuisines with the most potent recent growth in our area -- Indian and Chinese -- have come from countries with their own booms over the past 15 years.

The emergence of ethnic restaurants depends not on refugees from global trouble spots, but on several shifting social and economic factors: a concentration of people from the ethnic community, space at low rents, and a cuisine with potential to appeal to mainstream America. Where those forces are present, expect a culinary explosion; where they are not, ethnic restaurants will retreat.

Those are the factors that have shaped this region. Between 1960 and 2006, the District's population dropped from close to 800,000 to just 550,000, about 20 percent of whom live below the poverty line. High taxes, bad schools and expensive housing impelled people to leave for the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. Immigrants also began following the new opportunities -- settling outside the city. During the same period, Tysons Corner went from a cow patch to a bunch of auto dealerships to a first-tier shopping and business center. Small wonder that would-be restaurateurs such as Nat Kittayapifon, the manager at Pilin, chose Tysons over the District. "We were the first Thai restaurant in Fairfax County 17 years ago," he remembers. "Now I can count 10 on my fingers with no problem."

Of course, the District, with its lobbyists and international organizations, continues to be a center for expense-account dining. But the good ethnic restaurants downtown are either trendy (think Rasika and Indique, both of which reinterpret Indian for upmarket American eaters), or cater to the wealthy international crowd (such as the Spanish Taberna del Alabardero near the International Monetary Fund and World Bank). For the best buys, though, you have to get in the car and head out to the sprawl. These days, the most authentic, spiciest food comes at cheap, ugly strip malls, far from the District and miles from the Metro.

Adams Morgan once served as a classic parvenu dining spot, but its signature Ethiopian restaurants are no longer fresh. Old staples such as Meskerem now attract more Americans than Ethiopians. More vital mom-and-pop Ethiopian places -- the ones that serve kitfo , raw beef sprinkled with chili peppers and a form of dry cottage cheese -- opened first on U Street and then moved down to Ninth Street just south of U.

Georgetown and Dupont Circle priced out most of their good ethnic food more than a decade ago. Even Chinatown is at risk from the forces of gentrification. It's merging with the now-fashionable Verizon Center neighborhood, which is fast crossing over to trendy fusion and mainstream chains. Zaytinya (Middle Eastern fusion), Zengo (Latin-Asian fusion) and IndeBleu (a mix of French and Indian flavors) are among the best restaurants in the District, but all are known for their bars as much as for their menus.

Outside the District, much the same pattern has reshaped close-in urban centers such as Old Town Alexandria. In the late '80s, Old Town used to lure me with its Afghan pilaus and chalows , its Asian fusion and its chili at the Hard Times Cafe (my favorite stop on the way to Bullets games in Landover). But Afghan places have now spread farther west, edgier Asian dining has moved to Maryland, and Hard Times has become a chain and softened its chili's bite to appeal to the Old Town tourist trade.

I now travel to much grittier West Alexandria, especially near Interstate 395, which boasts a culinary range from Pakistani to Thai to Szechuan. Cheap rents, easy parking and highway proximity have made possible places there like the Thai Hut on Van Dorn Street, where I go now to find my favorite mee krob .

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