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What the Washington food scene tells us about America today.

I’ve written an online ethnic dining guide to the Washington area for over 20 years, and I find food a useful way to grasp how rapidly this country can change. These days, a lot of the biggest trends just aren’t on most people’s radar screens.

The first and most striking dining development is the rise of Chinese regional cuisine. There are now NanjingShanghaiUighurShanxiTaiwanese and other regional restaurants readily available. Real Hunan and Sichuan offerings are plentiful, in contrast to the thousands of nominally Hunan and “Szechuan” restaurants that have been around for decades. Cantonese food too now bears some resemblance to the real thing. The underlying reality is significant: The Chinese are now the second most numerous immigrant group arriving into the U.S., behind only Mexicans and catching up rapidly. 

Filipinos are the U.S.’s second largest Asian minority, and finally, after years of invisibility, Filipino restaurants are an active and growing part of the local dining scene. One of the best “fancy” restaurants in Alexandria, Virginia, serves an off-menu Filipino fixed price option in addition to its regular fare.

Relatively populous countries are making their mark on the American dining scene, including India and Pakistan. Another rapidly growing set of restaurants comes from Ethiopia and Eritrea. This too reflects the U.S.’s likely future, as a landing point for some of Africa’s large and growing population, much of it Muslim. It’s striking is how well this migration has proceeded, and how many East Africans are investing in education or starting businesses.

There’s also a mini-boom in restaurants from Yemen, five in the region at my last count, up from none 10 years ago. That reflects trouble in the home country, just as earlier conflicts drove many Afghans, Vietnamese and Salvadorans to the D.C. area. Sadly, Yemen is wracked with cholera, has been falling into political chaos and is the major site for the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war. Thousands of people have been killed by the fighting. It’s one of the most significant issues in the world, although most Americans don’t much seem to care.

Contrary to what many people will insist, it’s now possible to eat excellent Mexican food, including tacqueria-style tacos, in D.C.Northern Virginiaand 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.

Other big lessons? Chinese and Mexican restaurants seem well-placed to exert the most influence on the U.S. dining scene over the next 10 to 20 years. Both are populous, diverse countries, and Mexico has the advantage of proximity. With African and Filipino cuisines, both from populous regions, improving their position in the market, perhaps numbers matter after all. I love the food in the Faroe Islands, but it isn’t the future for American dining.