What's With All the Thai Restaurants in Portland?

Crunching the numbers on Portland's ethnic eateries.

The ever increasing number of Thai restaurants in Portland is something of a preoccupation in the WW office. Don't get me wrong, I'd give my first-born for a good pad grapow, but given the number of actual Thai residents in the city—versus, say, the Vietnamese population, or the Indian population, and their respective eateries—the numbers seemed a little out of whack.

So I sat down with a copy of the 2011 Yellow Pages and data from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey (with some help from PSU's Population Research Center to help me dig through the numbers). Here's what I got:

Number of Thais in the Portland metropolitan area: 1,757

Number of Thai restaurants in the Portland metropolitan area: 130

That's one restaurant for every 13.5 Thai people.

Let's compare that with the largest Asian community in the area, the Vietnamese community:

Number of Vietnamese in the Portland metropolitan area: 24,567

Number of Vietnamese restaurants in the Portland metropolitan area: 44

That's one restaurant for every 558 Vietnamese people.

And just for giggles, here's the data on the Indian community:

Number of Indians in the Portland metropolitan area: 12,160

Number of Indian restaurants in the Portland metropolitan area: 27

That's one restaurant for every 450 Indian people.

For those who learn visually, here is a lovely graph:

Now, granted, the data sets aren't perfect. There's a margin of error on of +/-417 on the Thai community, and +/-1,560 for the Vietnamese. It also doesn't take into account people who claim more than one ethnicity. And the Yellow Pages isn't quite as thorough as it once was, though it's fair to presume it's missing the same percentage of each type of restaurant. It also doesn't take into account food carts, which would up the number of Thai eateries by a significant amount (about 40, based on our records).

Now, the obvious answer to the discrepancy is that the survey also estimates 4,365 Laotian, and it's no secret that many of the city's Thai restaurants are run by members of this community. So, if we take that into account, and add the two together, we get one Thai restaurant for every 45 Thai and Laotian people.

Then there's Cambodia, which also shares a border and some culinary similarities with Thailand. If we add the estimated 2,861 Cambodians, we get one Thai restaurant for every 69 Thai, Laotian or Cambodian people.

That's still a little wonky.

I called Ken Rubin, who is the academic director of the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Portland and holds a Masters degree in the anthropology of food. Rubin said he hadn't given much critical thought to Portland's Thai cuisine, but after a few seconds of musing, hypothesized that our city's seemingly insatiable appetite for Thai food stems from the cuisine's unique flavor profile, which strikes the right balance between the exotic and the familiar for the American palate.

"They have that 'Aha!' moment of 'that's something I've never tried before but it tastes good' or 'that's a flavor profile I'm not used to'," Rubin said. "There is something in Thai food that 'I classify that as food' but it's unique or exotic enough that there's a deeper meaning.... There's something in the experience of eating Thai food that is a little palate opening."

"I [also] think part of it is that Thai food is a stand-in for just, quote: 'Asian food,' without the stigma of Chinese food, which is born from Americanized Chinese food—chop suey and such—that was born in the '50s, that carries a negative stigma in some ways."

So is Portland's palate just not ready for an influx of Laotian and Cambodian restaurants?

"I think Portland diners are in this funny juxtaposition," he muses. "I think a lot of Portlanders consider themselves open-minded and I think many are and it's becoming faster. But at end of the day, those distinctions—Laotian versus Cambodian versus Thai—become more tenuous.... There's a longer learning curve. We can't expect people to become instant gastronomic experts."

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