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 International 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.
Though the Jade District was only 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.(Pictured: Ocean City)
Tucked away in the Fubonn Shopping Center is Meianna Bakery (2850 S.E. 82nd Ave.), a pastry paradise where the tart crusts are always flaky and the buns never skimp on the barbecued pork. The pastries, cakes and breads that glimmer on its shelves are gorgeous amalgams of French, Japanese and Hong Kongese cuisine. Try a soft Swiss roll and take home a loaf of pork floss bread for tomorrow’s breakfast.
For many Chinese Americans, celebrations — weddings, birthdays, anniversaries — happen at dim sum restaurants like Ocean City (3016 S.E. 82nd Ave.), where the gilded gold-and-white decor gives off that special-occasion vibe. It’s easy to spend maybe a bit too much time here, sipping tea and watching the family dramas play out while you wait to digest enough of your meal to justify ordering the sesame balls for dessert.
If you’re a kid in the Jade District, the bright and unfussy Mojo Crepes (8409 S.E. Division St.) is the place to be, with its pool tables, board games and plentiful seating. It also doesn’t hurt that 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. After chowing down, play a game of pool with the other cool kids.
Chongqing Huo Guo
Chongqing Huo Guo (8230 S.E. Harrison St.) is a temple to Chinese hot pot, the seemingly endless meal around which generations of people have bonded, debated politics and sweat profusely. The broths contain multitudes: layers of flavor built with traditional roots and spices that gain additional character as you dunk your raw ingredients in them to cook through. Though the ingredient menu is extensive, the chive sauce, Shanxi knife-cut noodles, pork belly and fried tofu are essential. Offal lovers will also find their second home here.
You haven’t really felt heartbreak until you’ve tired to get to Hà VL (2738 S.E. 82nd Ave., #102) 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. Learn from those who have eaten here before you: To get a helping for yourself, show up early.
Even if you don’t read Cyrillic, you can still learn a lot by wandering through the aisles of the Good Neighbor (4107 S.E. 82nd Ave.) 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 à la Kachka. The potato pirozhki also make a great road breakfast if you’re driving off to Mt. Hood for the day.