In his commencement speech at Portland State University in 1998, President Bill Clinton addressed the contributions of immigrants to American culture: “Bearing different memories, honoring different heritages, [immigrants] have strengthened our economy, enriched our culture, renewed our promise of freedom and opportunity for all.” Clinton’s portrait of America seems most resonant in Portland’s Jade District, the area surrounding Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street, where a vibrant community of immigrants and people of color have found a stable foothold.
While the Jade District was officially designated by the city in 2011, its relatively large concentration of Asian, Latino, Black and Slavic residents and businesses reflects historical booms and busts that are a century old. Like many others before them, these communities have carved out spaces for themselves and their children by establishing diverse businesses, religious centers and recreational areas. And in such a cultural enclave, a restaurant isn’t just a restaurant — it’s a refuge, a community hub, that rare place where your grandfather can pronounce everything on the menu.
If you’re a kid in the Jade District, the bright and unfussy Mojo Crepes is the place to be. The hot dogs and crepes, modeled after Japanese street cuisine, are unique and absolutely crave-worthy. You can order one of the enormous, conical crepes filled with whatever suits your mood, be it green tea ice cream, matcha or fresh mango. Crepes are the perfect eat-on-the go snack; order a variety for the family and enjoy your new favorite street food at Mt. Tabor Park or Kelly Butte Natural Area, both just a few minutes away.
You haven’t really felt heartbreak until you’ve tried to get to the James Beard Award-nominated Hà VL on a Thursday afternoon after they’ve sold out of their famous snail soup. Along with a tasty selection of banh mi sandwiches, this family-owned shop runs two daily soup specials that will knock the socks off of anyone who thinks pho is the be-all, end-all of Vietnamese noodle soups. Come early for the best selection, or call ahead for takeout here or from Rose VL, its sister restaurant about a mile west, with its own incredible lineup of Vietnamese soups.
Even if you don’t read Cyrillic, you can still learn a lot by wandering through the aisles of the Good Neighbor grocery store, which has become an essential cultural center for the Russian-speaking community in East Portland. Grab some fresh-made rye bread, fruit, pickles, smoked fish, farmer’s cheese and sausage to make a picnic spread. The potato pirozhki also make a decadent snack. There is no market site for online shopping, which means an in-person visit will be extra special.
More Jade District businesses to visit:
Fujiyama Sushi Bar & Grill — With two Southeast Portland locations (82nd Avenue and Mall 205), this go-to sushi spot has been delighting fans for decades with its fresh sushi rolls, teppanyaki and original “Timmy” sauce, named by chef/owner Timmy Nguyen. Nguyen arrived in Oregon from Vietnam with his parents and eight siblings in 1984, became a self-taught chef and now employs close to 50 team members.
Toast La Tea — The perfectly Instagrammable boba teas are colorful, tasty, and entirely handmade at this tea bar on Southeast 87th Avenue. The owners make the boba from starch, in luscious milk tea flavors like mango, passionfruit, taro, matcha, oolong, jasmine, peach and more. The business also serves up Asian-fusion appetizers, snacks and sides at its Northwest 23rd Avenue location.
Utopia Restaurant & Lounge — If it’s incredibly delicious, traditional and simple Vietnamese food you’re craving, ordering takeout from Utopia is an excellent option. Find Asian comfort-food staples like spicy soup with beef and pork, tofu stir fry, rice porridge with sausage, deep-fried chicken wings and more.
Buddy’s Lounge — This local 82nd Avenue watering hole serves happiness in a cup with their latest innovation: alcoholic boba drinks to-go. Oregon’s legalization of takeout cocktails in December 2020 allowed owners Brian Jiang and Neil Chan to dream up concoctions like their Guinness whisky tea bomb, rainbow greyhound and spicy tequila mangonada. It’s one of many Portland bars now relying on takeout cocktails while dining protocols are still limited.
My Brother’s Crawfish — This Southern-style seafood spot on Southeast 82nd Avenue has been a longtime icon in Portland, featuring fresh ready-made boil bags to go: crawfish, king crab, Dungeness crab, mussels, clams and Gulf Coast shrimp. It’s owned by two Vietnamese brothers, one of whom ships the crawfish directly from Louisiana. Their full menu includes even more Southern favorites: chicken and sausage jambalaya, blackened catfish, crawfish etouffee, gumbo, po boy sandwiches, fried alligator, fried catfish and more.