I’m very pleased to report I took the advice of friends and ate at Luis’ Taqueria in Woodburn as I was on my way to Portland.
Woodburn is a old town with a large wart. I hope the gigantic outlet mall on the west side of I-5 brings in dividends for the townspeople, I really do. I’m sure it provides many jobs. And truthfully, the shops aren’t bad. But after watching hordes of bargain-hunters with glazed eyes and children grasping hungrily at the latest North Face jacket, I was feeling a bit claustrophobic.
So I went across the bridge into downtown Woodburn, which like many small Oregon towns, fronts the railroad tracks and has a line of wood-and-brick front late-19th century shops which have seen better days. Unlike many Oregon towns, though, it has a highly visible Hispanic population, and all those shops are Mexican restaurants and markets!
The 2000 census put Woodburn’s population at around 50% Hispanic, but if that area is any indication, I’d put it at about 80%. I noticed that there is a Hispanic culture festival of some sort each year, dating back at least to 1964, so the community has been around for at least that long, and surely longer. And you can see it in the restaurants. It was so nice to be in a vibrant taqueria with so many non-white faces eating very delicious food happily. I think a taqueria is one of the most joyful places on earth.
The downtown area is depressed, make no mistake. On 1st Street, there’s an abandoned movie theatre that was once probably pretty cool. I saw some aimless men wandering around that area and slow moving patrol cruisers, never a good sign. The internets also show some longstanding racial tensions in the community. But you can also see civic pride initiatives at work, too, including a spit-shined locomotive engine that is on an Oregon historical register and, I think, open to visitors.
By the way, the town websites also tell me that there’s a sizable Russian population in Woodburn. The Chamber of Commerce has a rather pastoral description of the Russian community, and puts the population at about 11% (2003). I looked for Russian restaurants/markets in Woodburn, but couldn’t find any. It could be that the community is, from the looks of it, ultra-Orthodox and not very open to outsiders. I’m not sure. But any leads would be appreciated.
I’ll be sure to check out some lovely churches the next time I go:
To view Woodburn’s Russian churches, take Highway 99E south from Woodburn 2 miles to Howell-Praire Road NE. Turn left (east) and travel 1/4 mile to Monitor-McKee Road. Turn left and travel 1/2 mile to Bethlehem Drive NE. The churches are all located in the area.
But back to the taqueria. You have to eat at least one seafood ceviche tostada (left in picture). Ceviche, of course, is that lime-juice cured mix of fish and shrimp with tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and cilantro. Don’t make the mistake I did and omit the order of tortilla chips, though. The wet marinade makes the tostada sloppy eating with your hands (who has time for a fork, thought I).
And the carnitas taco was absolutely delicious, too. You really can’t go wrong with fried pork. You might be more adventurous and try the cabeza (pig head, which became a theme of the trip, as you shall see in future posts), adobada (stewed beef), chorizo (spicy sausage) or chicharrones (pork rinds in a spicy sauce). You can get your sopes (little boats made out of masa dough) fix or tamales (and even buy sweet or plain masa to make your own). On the weekends, they have menudo and pozole soups.
The prices are great, the restaurant is family-friendly (but not obnoxiously so) and very clean. I was warned in Spanish by the cleaning lady in the ladies room not to wash my hands until she had wiped down the sink that had been sprayed with “clor.” The food is simple and comfortable — nothing fancy. But make no mistake: they don’t cut corners. All the tortillas are handmade as you wait, and the salsas and toppings are fresh and yummy.
I note with some sadness that a popular bakery on the strip has gone out of business, but a pristine and very well stocked butcher/grocer is still hawking its wares. I noticed tubs of homemade dark red molé paste on the shelves, and I really regret not taking one home. Next time!