Food writer and $20 Diner

Chef Kevin Li cooks at Reren Lamen & Bar in Chinatown in 2016. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Last July, in the heat of the presidential campaign, my friend Jim and I were standing outside of Reren Lamen & Bar on Seventh Street NW when a pack of bros — young, white, full of themselves — crossed our paths on the sidewalk. A Reren employee, hustling for business outside the restaurant, suggested the guys might want to check out the Chinese-style ramen.

Neither Jim nor I can remember exactly the response of one bro. But we remember the dismissiveness, privilege and racism that informed it. We both recall that the remark ended with the term, “Chinaman.” Jim felt terrible for the sidewalk barker. I felt contempt at the offending bro and the casualness with which he tossed off the insult. The dudes were headed to the Hooters. In Chinatown.

You can’t make this stuff up.

These many months later, we’re living in Trump’s America, and I suspect those bros helped make that a reality. Let’s not kid ourselves: America has always been tough on those new to its shores, and even President Trump’s predecessor in the White House was sometimes derided as the Deporter in Chief for the millions of illegal immigrants he sent home during his time in office.

But the climate today is different than it was under Barack Obama. Since taking office in January, Trump has pushed for ­policies and funding that fulfill his campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration. In March, he signed a revised executive order to restrict travel from six majority-Muslim countries, which two federal judges halted before the bans could take effect. Trump continues to push for funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.


Leopold Liao, chef-owner at Reren Lamen & Bar, left, with customer Jade Gong of Arlington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Perhaps most troubling to those affected by it, Trump signed an executive order in his first days in office that gives immigration agents broad authority to arrest virtually any undocumented person. If you read the order, it allows agents to detain not just convicted criminals but those immigrants who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” It also cracks down on immigrants who have “abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.”

The results of these orders have been mixed. Customs and Border Protection agents have apprehended far fewer people trying to cross the southern border, suggesting the president’s hard line has succeeded in scaring off potential border-crossers. Both legal and undocumented immigrants — those who are either eligible for the benefits or are applying for their children — have willingly surrendered their food stamps out of fear of interacting with the government. American-born children of these immigrants may be going hungry.

As a critic who spends most of his time in restaurants run by immigrants, I regularly interact with people from Pakistan, El Salvador, Vietnam, China, Ethi­o­pia, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, Peru, Thailand and many other countries. These folks feed me. They teach me about their cuisines. They sometimes never return my phone calls because they don’t trust my motivations: They don’t believe a critic with The Washington Post will review their restaurant for free. There must be a catch. Or it must be a trap.

This paranoia existed before Trump, and it will linger after him. But the paranoia has assumed new forms lately. Jaime Arbaiza, general manager of La Casita Pupuseria and Market in Silver Spring, recently told me about an incident at the Gaithersburg location of the restaurant, where managers were debating about how to deal with some dine-and-dashers. Should they report the incident to police?


Jaime Arbaiza, general manager of La Casita Pupuseria and Market in Silver Spring, with his mother, Leonor. Their family started the restaurant in 2002. (Julie Wan/For The Washington Post)

Managers decided to eat the cost of the purloined pupusas. They thought, “You know, let’s not call the cops and have them come in here and scare the customers,” Arbaiza says. There’s just a lot of anxiety right now, Arbaiza adds.

This beat frequently requires me to confront tough questions of my own, such as: Am I contributing to the fetishization of global cuisines by spotlighting them? Am I reinforcing a stereotype that so-called “ethnic food” (a term, by the way, that I try to avoid) must be cheap? Am I an appropriator who makes a living off other people’s cultures?

Someone could make an argument against me on each accusation, but I think any such discussions need to consider motivation and action. My motivation is to understand cuisines and pass along my knowledge, no matter how limited. My behavior is to enter every unfamiliar restaurant with humility because I know the roles are reversed, and I am the minority in the micro-culture of the immigrant restaurant. I respect this new world and try not to place the values of another restaurant culture upon it. It’s sometimes easier said than done, particularly in a restaurant that doesn’t share the sense of hospitality found at, say, Rose’s Luxury.


Aloo paratha at Dera Restaurant in Springfield, Va. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Co-owner Ghulam Rubani and a customer at Dera. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

But this habit of sampling the world’s cuisines has given me a deep appreciation for the things that separate us — and the things that bind us across great divides. Like flatbreads. The world loves a flatbread, whether the aloo paratha at Dera Restaurant in Springfield or the soppressata-topped pie at Pizza CS in Rockville, even if customers dine in hijabs at the former and in gimme caps at the latter. Some people may pray before they eat, like Bangladeshi Muslims do at Aladdin in Arlington, and some may pray for a victory, like the sports fans at the Hawk & Dove on Capitol Hill. Both are, essentially, acts of faith.

If I’ve learned anything about dining in immigrant-run restaurants, it’s that there is power in breaking bread together. You humble yourself in the presence of dishes and traditions you don’t understand. You trust that those foreign to you will feed you, take care of you, maybe even pamper you. Before you know it, the walls between us start to crumble, if just a little, or just for a little while.

This is the power of food. Edward Lee, the Louisville chef who will soon make D.C. his home base, recently told me about the Lebanese food available throughout the Mississippi Delta, where immigrants from Mount Lebanon settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kibbe, grape leaves and other Lebanese dishes remain rooted in various communities, even if the offspring of those first immigrants have left the Deep South.

Mississippians “argue about who makes the best kibbe,” Lee says. “You can’t hate someone if you like their food.”

Yet, I suspect, those with stronger denial systems can hate the people but love their food, simply because these diners never make a connection between the delicious dish in front of them and the culture from which it sprang. Hate is just another wall between people. How do you begin to tear it down? You open yourself up to the immigrants who make your food.