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Lessons from the Wahington, D.C. dining scene

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

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

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Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is an American economist, academic, and writer. He occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. Cowen and Tabarrok have also ventured into online education by starting Marginal Revolution University. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times, and he also writes for such publications as The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Newsweek, and the Wilson Quarterly.

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