World Comes To Eugene’s Taste Buds

I’ve been telling my friends for twenty years that Eugene will have arrived when it grows up to fit its restaurants. I always believed it would take a biblical generation of 40 years before the quality offered at our finest restaurants didn’t seem out of place here. But Eugene has gotten there in half that time, thanks to development strategies crafted over a decade ago by the University of Oregon and the city of Eugene.

In the late 1990s, the University of Oregon determined that the state’s ongoing divestiture from higher education funding was unlikely to reverse itself, so the university’s leaders set out to make themselves self-sustaining as quickly as possible. Fundraising was accelerated, but another change was in the offing.

Economic analyses showed that in-state tuition was the operation’s loss-leader. Only students from out of state and from outside the country “earned” the institution a “profit.” The wheels of change were accelerated by football fame. The student body became much more diverse. More recently, Lane Community College has also begun recruiting students from greater distances.

It took a while for business owners and landlords to recognize and respond to this trend, but it’s taken a firm hold now. Not very long ago, every new ethnic restaurant was competing for the same small sliver of cosmopolitan diners seeking exotic cuisines. Now there are a dozen cuisines that can rely on a stable group of customers who miss the tastes of home.

Restaurants are like skyscrapers. The first sense they make is never economic. Any entrepreneur who thinks opening a restaurant will be easy because “everybody eats” will learn quickly their mistake. There’s a reason there are no nationwide chains of paid toilets.

If you’re looking to buy yourself a job, clean medical offices or stripe parking lots. You’ll make more money for less aggravation than every restaurateur accepts, and you won’t find yourself working 14-hours days and most weekends. And yet, new restaurants continue to appear.

To cite only the most recent example, the Mediterranean Network Restaurant opened this week on the southwest corner of 18th and Willamette. Alaa Albaadani from Yemen and Yousis Alnaraih from Saudi Arabia have run restaurants before, so this is not their first rodeo — though they may never have been to an actual rodeo.

I asked them why they called it a “network restaurant.”

“Our food is very important to us,” Alaa told me. “We want to share it with people, so they can get to know us, our culture, our people. This will connect us. It will be our network.”

World peace never tasted so good. I have been longing for a certain Egyptian street food. I knew it by another name, but their mejadra tastes just like the koshary I lived on for a month in Cairo. Rice and lentils, spiced with onion, garlic, and tomato — it’s more like the rice bowls served across the street at Café Yumm than anything else you may know.

In fact, I think of the Yumm bowl as Eugene’s indigenous food.

I recently returned from a two-month trip. As I restocked my refrigerator, I noticed a pattern. Toby’s tofu, Yumm sauce (two varieties), Nancy’s yogurt, Emerald Valley Kitchen salsa — these are my comforts of home. I could have added Euphoria chocolate sauce and Pasta Plus pesto, but that would be piling on. They share local roots, but also a certain viscosity. The gastronomy of Tracktown USA runs thick.

I’m not the only one with a locals-only fridge shelf. It was all part of a plan.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy in 2005 unveiled the region’s economic development plan, focused on specific business clusters. One targeted sector for focused attention was natural foods.

Saturday Market this month recognized this niche as fitting its handcraft ethos. Tucked between the food carts, you’ll find a small booth for vendors who make edible art — chocolates, salsa, who-knows-what. What better way to give visitors a flavor of Eugene?

Thanks to food carts, any cuisine can now find its audience here. There’s never been a tastier time to enjoy Eugene.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday and blogs at www.dksez.com.