The Unsurprising Oasis of Chinese Food in Mexico
Politicians and pundits tend to depict immigration in the Americas as a journey north. Not coincidentally, the prevailing picture of what an immigrant looks like is a person who has come—or who is trying to come—to America. But of course, that image reflects only a narrow view of the many ways people and culture move in this hemisphere.
Chinese people, for instance, have been living in Mexico since at least the 1600s, long before the country was officially known as Mexico. The largest groups of Chinese immigrants to the country arrived during the tail end of the nineteenth century and the first couple decades of the twentieth. The border city of Mexicali is the historical center of the Chinese-Mexican population. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 closed America to Chinese workers, thousands of immigrants were drawn to jobs in Baja’s arid capital—some displaced from the States by the Exclusion Act and others directly from China.
Today, while much of the Chinese population has dispersed and blended into the country, there remain hundreds of Chinese restaurants in Mexicali. This is not news. Google “Chinese Mexicali” and you’ll come across at least a half dozen articles dating back to the 1980s about the city’s Chinese food scene. In general, they express a sort of befuddled delight about the fact that there are so many Chinese restaurants here. (“I'm sitting in a restaurant on the edge of the Sonoran desert in Mexicali, on the other side of the US-Mexico border, and I'm about to eat some of the best Chinese food of my life,” says Adam Elder for Vice.) Some go so far as to suggest that there exists a distinctive “Baja-style” Chinese food, citing evidence in the form of stir-fries served with tortillas, avocado in the fried rice, and tables set with bowls of limes and scallions (cebollitas) packed like cigarettes in water glasses.
I have eaten Chinese food on most days of my life. I usually eat it in California, where I’m from, but I’ve had it all over the States, as well as in China, Japan, Thailand, Australia, under a bridge in Denmark, and outside a train station in Germany. Until recently, I had never eaten Chinese food in Mexico. I admit being pulled in by the novelty of Baja-Chinese food. As you might expect from a Californian, the food that I have consumed second-most frequently is Mexican. I was curious to see this mythic place where China and Mexico met and birthed a new cuisine.
Mexicali’s Chinese restaurants are spread all over this city of 40 square miles and nearly 700,000 residents. There are workaday dives and cheap buffets, as well as upmarket restaurants with expansive dining rooms that cater to large groups. By and large, the Chinese food in Mexicali will be familiar to anyone who’s ever eaten in an Americanized Chinese restaurant: Orange chicken, chow mein, fried rice, and broccoli beef appear on most menus. If anything, there’s a sort of time-freeze going on, as though the erection of the border wall along the city’s edge permanently preserved a category of Westernized Chinese dishes that have faded into memory on the American side of the line.
I tasted my first chop suey and my first egg foo yung in Mexicali (both of which were improved immensely with a spritz from a lime wedge). At Restaurante Dragon—one of the big, brightly lit banquet halls in town—I had a bowl of (imitation) shark fin soup spiked with a few squirts of red vinegar that brought me immediately back to dinners in southern California with my family. (For some reason, sopa de aleta is ubiquitous in Mexicali.)
In La Chinesca, Mexicali’s Chinatown proper, you’ll see the typical architectural signifiers of a Chinatown, including a decorative pagoda that basically abuts the border fence. But the whole neighborhood comprises only a few sparsely occupied blocks—nothing like what you’d expect if your reference is the Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York. A local Chinese-Mexican resident tells me that all the signage in this part of town used to be written in Chinese; that there used to be a Chinese bank and Chinese markets and more Chinese people but that better opportunities have taken them elsewhere—both deeper into Mexico and back across the border into the States. Roll-up steel doors and plywood boards cover many of the building entrances on Calle Juarez, the main drag in La Chinesca, but that’s not to say that La Chinesca is dead. There’s still plenty of life here, if you look closely.
On a weekend morning, a group speaking Korean emerges from one of the Chinese community centers, evidently on a tour of historic Mexicali. I hear Justin Bieber’s voice and look around to find a loudspeaker parked in front of a pharmacy blaring a dance remix of DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You.” Prostitutes fix their makeup outside the Hotel Nueva Pacifico. And in front of Restaurant Victoria, there’s a line of people waiting to get in.
The menu at Victoria is a hodgepodge that appears to be as much influenced by Americana as China. They have fried rice and egg rolls, but also eggs and pancakes, and cheesecake for dessert. Almost everyone is drinking coffee. The most popular dish seems to be vaquita de res—a cross between stir-fry and fajitas served on an enormous cast-iron platter shaped like a cow. Servers bring the dish out under a plastic cloche, which they remove at the table to unveil a sizzling, steaming mountain of meat and vegetables.
The place is packed with families, couples, and a few old-timers at the counter. Gathered around a corner table is a group of six men and women with two acoustic guitars singing love songs—they say they meet here every weekend. I search the room trying to identify any obviously Chinese people, but I honestly can’t tell by looking.
An American visitor to a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali will no doubt identify the limes on the table as a product of Mexican influence and the fried rice on the menu as obviously Chinese. At least, this is what I find myself doing over and over again. I’m not sure why, and the constant mental sorting eventually makes me uneasy, as though I’ve appointed myself an agent of some kind of cultural border patrol.
The presence of the real, armed border patrol looms large over this place. The American city of Calexico is directly adjacent and visible through the tall slats of the border fence. But the people in Mexicali—cachanillas, as they call themselves—aren’t defined by the border. Nearly a million people live in the greater Mexicali area, and as far as I can tell, they aren’t spending their days staring at the wall.
On Super Bowl Sunday, I return to find Restaurante Dragon buzzing. I’m back to try some dishes I missed the first time around. I order from our server in a mix of broken Spanish and broken Mandarin—the first time in my life that my ineptitude in those two particular languages has worked to my advantage. A plate of lightly fried, whole yellow jalapeños have a little kick to them, and provide a good palate cleanser. I’m impressed by the craftsmanship of battered-and-fried tofu squares stuffed with minced shrimp, as well as by the expertly constructed pollo relleno especial, wherein a chicken is deboned, minced by hand, then stuffed back into the skin. The one holdover from my previous visit is a soup of buche de anguila (fish swim bladders, specifically from a pike) because I’m obsessed with the deeply savory broth and the motley parade of textures, from wilted cabbage, to pillowy quail eggs, to the lightly chewy fish innards.
I make a comment to Dragon’s manager, George Lim, that I’ve never seen some of these dishes before. He’s surprised. Have I ever been to Los Angeles? You can find this stuff anywhere.
Dragon has been around for more than four decades and it hasn’t survived by trading in cross-cultural novelty. Like many restaurants, it counts on birthday parties and busy weekend afternoons and regulars to keep its tables full. I mention this because what seems to fascinate people about the Baja-Chinese food is the contrast, ostensibly between Chinese food and Mexican food. We look at the idiosyncrasies—the limes, the avocado, the tortillas—and see signs of a unique hybridization process. But the simple fact is that Chinese food in Mexico looks a lot like Chinese food in America. This, I think, is why it’s so riveting—maybe even jarring—for Americans to come to a part of the world that the aforementioned politicians would have you believe is fundamentally different from ours and see that the orange chicken is exactly the same.