Rarely does a farm town of barely 11,000 residents offer a more compelling immigrant story than the nearby 600,000+ metropolitan area.
But such is the case in Ontario, Oregon, a small community straddling the Idaho-Oregon border, about an hour west of Boise. During WWII, the Treasure Valley welcomed the Japanese escaping internment on the West Coast, offering them farming jobs vacated by servicemen. As a result, Ontario saw an influx of Japanese seeking work in the onion fields. Over time, the Japanese-Americans gained a presence in Ontario’s commerce and have left an indelible mark on the town’s history. Having grown up Japanese in Hawaii, Ontario’s story hit home.
Visitors can taste the Japanese influence on Ontario at Ogawa’s Teriyaki Hut (375 E. Idaho Ave., Ontario). Don’t expect kaiseki. The menu is unapologetically, gun-totingly Idaho, offering rice bowls topped in teriyaki sauce, simple sushi rolls, chicken katsu, and — of course — hamburgers. But the food is tasty: the sushi is reliably fresh and rolled neat and tight, the rice bowls are comforting on a cold day, and the chicken katsu is crisp and succulent.
After lunch, visit the Japanese garden at the Four Rivers Cultural Center (676 SW 5th Ave., Ontario). The Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple (286 SE 4th Ave., Ontario), established by Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, hosts weekly services and an annual summertime obon festival where one can immerse oneself in Japanese dance, taiko drumming, and food.
In recent years, Hispanic immigrants have filled many of Ontario’s farming jobs, creating another lively and thriving ethnic community in this small town. Tacos Mi Ranchito (252 S. Oregon St., Ontario) has taken over an old Chinese restaurant, and slings delicious burritos, tacos, and tortas, among other taqueria staples. Their protein options are limited, but tasty — choose from pollo asado (grilled chicken), carne asada (steak), carnitas (fried pork), al pastor (seasoned roasted pork), or lengua (tongue). The S.O. swears by their burritos, which are so full of savory rice and beans that they end up the size of my forearm. But I’m partial to their tacos ($2/ea), crafted on fluffy white corn tortillas.
Swing by Corona’s Panaderia (458 SW 3rd Ave., Ontario) for dessert. This Mexican bakery offers freshly-baked empañadas, pan de huevos, conchas, pan dulces, and galletas (all $0.50/ea) that walk the line between being as dense as bricks and as bready as a dinner roll — exactly how Mexican pastries are supposed to be! Pick up a tray and a pair of tongs, then start piling treats between your arms like a fat kid on Halloween. I recommend the pan de huevos — a leavened egg bread topped with sugar compacts so fluorescent pink they look like one of A.C. Slater’s muscle shirts. For a savory craving, pick up a pan con queso y jalapeño ($1/ea), an airy bread filled with rich cream cheese and roasted peppers, harkening to a bagel with schmear.
The merging of Ontario’s cultures is most evident at the Red Apple Marketplace (555 SW 4th Ave., Ontario). With its blotchy vinyl floors and low ceilings, Red Apple looks like the quintessential small-town grocery store circa 1980. But given the town’s ethnic makeup, Red Apple carries a broad selection of Hispanic and Japanese groceries — although seeing nori and Virgin Mary candles across a meat counter hawking ground round feels like the twilight zone. But Red Apple boasts a better selection of Japanese goods and grocery than any of Boise’s Asian markets. Stock up on their more unique and harder-to-find products like nuka, the rice bran used for fermenting takuwan (pickled daikon radish); tawashi sponges (natural-bristled scrubbers that don’t bite non-stick surfaces); and real Japanese miso. Pick up a copy of the Ontario Japanese Cookbook — but be forewarned that these spiral-bound puppies sell like hotcakes.