Down Mexicali Way

Down Mexicali Way

The philosopher Jose Gaos coined the term transterrado at a 1939 dinner with his new colleagues at the National University in Mexico City. As a liberal intellectual, Gaos had found himself on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War and sought asylum in Mexico. He wrote of his remarks that evening, “I wanted to express that I didn’t consider myself an exile.”

To be exiled, desterrado, was to be a man without a country. As he spoke to his fellow professors, a new word sprang to mind that swapped the depriving des- for trans-, a prefix that connotes arrival or completion. The difference between desterrado and transterrado is the difference between being uprooted and transplanted.

Chinese immigrants in the US-Mexico borderlands, buffeted by the winds of war and privation, took a similar view. Their tenuous circumstances would tolerate no halting steps. On one side, they faced exclusionary legal barriers. On the other, popular and political resentment by name of antichinismo had a history of boiling over into murderous race riots. Chinese had to spread their roots quickly or they wouldn’t make it. Like Jose Gaos, who leveraged his philosophy to see him through his new life, Chinese immigrants had a secret weapon to live by: recipes.

The Cleaver Quarterly took a road trip through the Sonoran desert to gauge how the flavors from that inheritance of cookery have accrued after a few generations under a dry and unforgiving sun. 

Our journey began in Phoenix, Arizona, home to the most spectacular adaptation of Sonoran-Chinese cuisine: the combo platters at Chino Bandido Takee-Outee. Chino Bandido hawks tin pie pans heaped with takeout standards like Egg Foo Yung and General Tso’s, with sides of pork fried rice, refried beans, and quesadillas. Made-up dish names and the cheeky panda bandit mascot camouflage the lived experience that produced the Chino Bandido menu. The eight-dollar combos in those tin pans trace back to the 1930s and a nine-year-old Cantonese “paper son” who defied the Chinese Exclusion Act and faked his way past American immigration officials by memorizing a bogus ancestry that linked him to a legal Chinese-American family.

After a stint as a WWII draftee cooking for American GIs, he opened a grocery in a small town on the outskirts of Phoenix. There weren’t many Chinese nearby, so he adapted his business and diet to the local community. He learned to process wild game for hunters. A Native American neighbor showed him how to bake bread. A longtime Mexican customer taught him about tamales. His daughter Eve Collins, Chino’s co-founder, remembers him eating steamed rice with a chop of butter and a dash of black pepper. 

Occasionally a bite from a Chino combo will mainline flavors straight from the Chinese canon, like the #10 Emerald Chicken, which comes tossed in a pitch-perfect bok cheet gai ginger-scallion sauce. But in the broad sense, Chino Bandido is Chinese at its furthest remove, folded into tortillas and eaten with a scoop of black beans. I asked Eve what her immigrant parents made of her eclectic menu. They loved it, she said, because that was how they ate at home – with a squirt of oyster sauce in their tamales and a spicy hoisin glaze on their Thanksgiving turkey.

Chino Bandido’s border-jumping combos bear witness to the history of a family that gladly erased the dividing lines between food traditions from around the world. Perhaps a single family responds more nimbly to the selective pressures of a new environment. That may explain Chino Bandido’s divergence from the trajectory of Chinese food along the US-Mexico border, where an entire community of immigrants was, in Gaos’ terms, transterrado.

Rusted fence posts mark off the barren scrub along the road from Phoenix to California’s Imperial Valley. The view from the highway is all rocks and thistle until the flatlands break into leathery hillsides; the mountains in turn give way to the sleek contours of sand dunes, and then you are in the valley.

The Imperial Valley fills the lowland corridor from the Salton Sea toward the Gulf of California with a lush checkerboard of farmland that runs flush to the border. Viewed from above, the California border town, Calexico, comes into focus as a northern rump of Mexicali, the sprawling urban center on the other side of the fence. 

The interlocking place names speak to the blended economies of the region. Both towns emerged from a land development project at the turn of the last century that irrigated the basin and contracted Cantonese immigrants to work the land. They settled the then-frontier town of Mexicali and made it their own.

Mexicali’s La Chinesca neighborhood hit its swing during Prohibition. Chinese from either side of the border, attracted by the blossoming community and lucrative business opportunities, and often fleeing violent prejudice, gravitated to La Chinesca where they operated gambling palaces for thirsty American revellers, organized into secret societies to protect their interests, smuggled booze into the United States through underground tunnels, and opened a hell of a lot of restaurants. 

Today, Mexicali residents, or mexicalienses, pride themselves on the culinary endowment seeded by those early immigrants. They describe their Chinese food as slightly sweeter and less salty than “San Diego-style Chinese,” a local synecdoche for Chinese-American food in general. At first bite, the distinction seems rather thin. The menu at a restaurant on the California side features the same platters you find at any small-town American takeaway: chop suey, chow mein, egg rolls, special fried rice. Even with a spritz from a fresh lemon wedge, which tempers the sweet sauces with a refreshing citrus tang, the food was decent though unremarkable. “It’s better on the other side,” our waiter, a mexicaliense, said in undertone.

The border crossing is as abrupt on the ground as it appears from orbit. A stroll along the shoulder of a rural California main street runs straight into a downtown Mexican hubbub. Having crossed the international line almost by accident, we backtracked and poked around empty offices until we found someone in a uniform to ask about a passport stamp. “What are you doing here?” he asked. We mentioned Chinese food. He laughed and waved us into the city like an indulgent host.

Drooping power lines crisscrossed above the cracked and peeling storefronts. Foot traffic flowed under the awnings of a border market that traded in T-shirts and other tchotchkes. Metal rollers shuttered dingy pool halls and seedy bars in the daytime heat. Where was La Chinesca? The historic Chinese neighborhood should have been within a block or two of the border. A fruit vendor gestured vaguely and grumbled beneath his fraying hat brim, “Chinesca? That way, but I don’t know what you think you’ll find.”

Relics, tantalizing and cryptic, hinted we were on the trail. A bilingual open-closed sign dangled from a pharmacy door, awkwardly translating abierto and cerrado into Chinese characters. A battered shoeshine stand, chained and padlocked to the pillar of a shady colonnade, bore a title in ragged lettering: Boleria Chinesca. Posters in the window of a bare-bones Haitian diner advertised típica comida haitiana in a neglected building marked by the sign of the Jiangxia Huang Clan. It dawned on us, slowly at first and then in a rush, that we stood in the heart of La Chinesca, surrounded by ghosts of a Chinatown gone by.

Having survived revolution, antichinismo, tong wars, and systematic deportations, La Chinesca appears to have been done in by a shopping mall. By one account, the sprawling complex that today boasts a Sears and a discount supermarket shifted the commercial center of gravity away from the border and into the city, hollowing out La Chinesca. Like a disbanded army, Chinese restaurants melted into the city.

The fact of the matter is that Jose Gaos was desterrado.

He was an exile. His native land had divided against itself. Fascists treated his people like rats in the laboratory of machine-age war. The word transterrado was a salve, an oily neologism to proof him against despair. The trick, he later wrote, was to plunge forward, to treat an interim arrangement like it would go on forever. That way you don’t linger on backward glances.

We breakfasted at Restaurant Victoria, a pie-and-coffee joint in La Chinesca. This was one of the holdouts in the old town, a modest café de chinos that served affordable fare in gratuitous volume. The back cover of the menu gave a dutiful nod to short-order classics – eggs and sandwiches – but the insides fairly burst with comida china, complete with variants of fu yong, arroz frito, and a long list of meat-and-veg stir-fries under the title carnes con verduras. Main dishes like vaquita de res, a sizzling steak platter served on a cow-shaped iron skillet (tieban niurou 铁板牛肉), and carnitas coloradas, red carnitas aka char siu pork, came with the choice of bread, tortillas or rice, plus a saucer of halved Key limes. As we ate, a guitar-strapped stranger in aviator sunglasses and a cowboy hat strolled through the doors to serenade the morning rush of mustachioed men and their families with a mournful lover’s dirge.

The food was prepared carefully, lovingly even. But it wasn’t a revelation. Chinese food in Mexicali is not remarkable for its distinctive flavors but rather for how large a part it forms of the mexicaliense identity. A longtime restaurant operator told us of his regulars, everyday folks, who rave about his bitter melon of all things. He described visitors from Mexico City, in town for business, who call in orders for pick-up on the way to the airport. That’s what you think of when someone you know goes to Mexicali: a chance at same-day airmail delivery of orange beef, or should we say carne arrachera al naranja.

A manifesto on display in a downtown cultural showcase highlights the accumulated heritage of the nomads, pilgrims, vagabonds, expatriates, emigrants, and transterrados who populated the borderlands: “People migrate in search of something. A dream, a vision of new life.” The statement goes on to describe how “transborder culture” shines a light on the dark in-between places. 

Of the nearly three-quarter million souls in Mexicali, only about five thousand belong to Chinese-Mexicans. Yet their experiences are knitted into the fabric of the place. The trick to finding Chinese food in Mexicali is to stop looking. What’s the name of that fast-food joint around the corner? Comida China Express Macao. What should I order at Cafe Azteca? Try the pollo cantonés. Where can I buy a bottle of Cholula? Aisle one, across from the salsa de soya and the rest of the productos chinos.

The very language of Mexican-Chinese food is enough to restore faith in common humanity. The world may go to hell in an oyster pail, but we’ll always have broccoli con res and chorizo chino al vapor to calm our restless souls.

The sight of a grocery window with handwritten placards offering specials on fermented soybean pastes with names like salsa de chili guili and salsa frijol con ajo reminded us of something Eve Collins said at Chino Bandido. Some people want to stay pure and true to their roots no matter where the wind carries them. “That’s shorting yourself,” she said. Why would you willingly seal yourself off?

photos by Stella Chan and Matt P. Jager

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Recommended reading

Early Chinese settlers faced a perilous journey to Mexicali. The overland trek led through a desert that today bears the name of those who perished en route: el desierto de los chinos. The pluck and grit of these turn-of-the-century pioneers is celebrated by their inheritors. An LA Times feature quotes a Mexicali restaurant manager: “Everyone knows Mexicali exists because the Chinese could stand the heat.”

That is not just a clever pun but a literal statement of fact. Brutal summers drove Chinese to dig basement cellars beneath their shops to escape the scorching temperatures above ground. Erin Lee Holland investigates for Vice the catacombs that link the cave-like dens under La Chinesca into an “underground Chinatown.” Holland contextualizes her photographs of these abandoned places of refuge with the dull creep of horror and uncertainty that underpins the story of Chinese-Mexicans in the first half of the last century. For more on racial identity and the antichinismo campaigns, tuck into Jason Oliver Chang’s Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico.

Around the time Jose Gaos arrived in Mexico, Chinese-owned diners were springing up across the capital, serving a mixed menu of cheap coffee, pastries, and chop suey. While reviewing one of the “last of the cafés de chinos,” food blogger and Modern Mexican Dining In Mexico City author Nicholas Gilman describes the cultural impact of these once-ubiquitous eateries:

Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafés de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, display nominally Chinese decor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. 

Want to read the full Chino Bandido origin story? Check out “Mouth By Southwest” in Issue 5 of our print magazine.