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The awards for 2018’s quintessentially American restaurants all went to immigrants

Here’s why that matters.

James Beard finalists Gabe Souza/Getty

The most recent series of prestigious culinary prizes makes a statement, intentionally or not, about the place of immigrants in American culture: All five of the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 “America’s Classics” awards went to restaurants opened by immigrants.

The awards, according to the foundation, go to “regional establishments, often family-owned, that are cherished for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.” Over the past few years, winners have included barbecue joints in New York, drive-ins in Montana, shaved ice in New Orleans, and a “quintessential Maryland crab house.”

Restaurants opened by immigrants, whether recently or decades ago, are often well-represented. (Last year, La Taqueria in San Francisco won, with a special nod to its Mission-style burrito, as did two restaurants — Sahadi’s in New York and Gioia’s Deli in St. Louis — opened by immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

But 2018 appears to be the first year that all the awards went to restaurants founded by immigrants who arrived after 1965.

  • Sun Wah, originally located in a “a nine-foot wide storefront,” in New York City’s Chinatown and later relocated in 1987 to a diverse neighborhood in Chicago, was founded by Eric Cheng, who was born in China.
  • El Guero Canelo, a hot dog restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, grew from a stand founded by Daniel Contrera. He immigrated from Mexico in 1979 and started his career working as a dishwasher. Now, his hot dog business employs 140 people in Tucson and attracts tourists from all over the world: “They come from all over the place — Japan, Sweden, even China — just to eat a hot dog!” he said in an interview.
  • Los Hernandez, which serves handmade tamales in Union Gap, Washington, was founded by Felipe Hernandez. He immigrated from Coahuila, Mexico, to Eastern Washington in 1957 to work in agriculture. Now he uses locally sourced crops in his famed tamales.
  • Dong Phuong Bakery was founded in 1982 by De Tran and Huong Tran, who fled the Vietnam War. It’s one of New Orleans’ first Vietnamese bakeries, and, according to the James Beard website, “exemplifies how thoroughly the Vietnamese community has become a vital part of the local culinary landscape.”
  • Galleria Umberto, a Sicilian-style pizza joint in Boston was founded by the current owners’ father, an immigrant from Italy, in 1965. It’s located in a neighborhood rich in immigrant culture.

Beyond the fact that all the restaurants are owned by immigrants, it’s also notable that two of the winners are from Mexico and another pair came to the US as refugees — making them members of immigrant groups who are frequent targets of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

When we asked the James Beard foundation if they had selected a full slate of immigrant winners on purpose, a spokesperson said the chefs’ geographic backgrounds weren’t necessarily a factor in the committee’s selection: “This year’s cohort showcases, among other attributes, the dynamism of 21st century American foodways,” the foundation said in a statement.

But by calling restaurants founded by immigrants from Italy, Vietnam, China, and Mexico “American Classics,” the foundation is, at the very least, making a statement about what it means to be American — and offering a more inclusive definition of the term than the president himself.

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