Monday, February 12, 2007

Chinese Chorizo

'Chinese Mexican in America' was son of Tucson pioneers

By Kimberly Matas
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 02.02.2007

To his wife and children, Phillip Wah Don Sr. was a hardworking family man with a silly sense of humor.

Don's sister remembers him as the only brother among nine siblings, the son of Tucson pioneers.

His bingo buddies remember Don as a gregarious character who would do a little jig in the aisles when he won.

And a former employee remembers her boss as a kind man who knew more about making chorizo, a Mexican sausage, than she did.

Don, 85, died Jan. 27, from a pulmonary ailment.

He and his eight sisters were the children of Don Wah, who moved to Tucson from San Francisco in the late 1800s, and China-born Fok Yut.

When he arrived in Tucson, Don Wah worked as a cook for Southern Pacific Railroad. An entrepreneur, he eventually opened six grocery stores. In time, he turned his stores over to his children, and Don acquired El Cortez Market, 2455 N. First Ave.
"We all grew up among the Mexican people," said Don's sister, businesswoman Esther Tang. "All of our customers, primarily, were our Mexican neighbors. I guess we were Chinese Mexicans in America."

"Their family was raised in a unique Chinese-American tradition that combined the Chinese heritage with modern American ways of life," read Don Wah's 1961 Arizona Daily Star obituary. "The entire family was taught to be fluent in Chinese, English and Spanish. The balance between the cultures was demonstrated by the family tradition of having one Chinese meal daily with the remaining meals either American or Mexican."

From that upbringing, it seemed a natural progression when, in the early 1970s, Phillip Don converted part of his grocery store into Don's Chinese/Mexican Deli.
A 1984 Tucson Citizen restaurant review called the combination of cultures a "unique local phenomenon."

The reviewer called Don's red chili burro "a generous and good-tasting example of gustatory portability" and said: "I have yet to come across anything Don's does poorly. Their Mexican food has a good sharp bite to it, which carries a Chinese accent, but nonetheless cannot be faulted by any prevailing local standard of border cookery."

"Phillip was the butcher for his store and people came from all over to buy his special chorizo sausage," said his daughter-in-law, Alison Don.

"It was very famous," said his wife of 61 years, Florence Chan Don. "People from California would come in and want to take some back. It was tasty. ... He found the magic touch."

Former employee Yolanda Reyna cooked for the Mexican side of the deli for 10 years. Don, she said, was a generous family man who gave jobs to her four daughters and her sister-in-law. Don's children also worked at the grocery after school.

Don taught Reyna to make chorizo using wine, his secret ingredient.

"What was so different and unique is he was Chinese, but he knew Mexican food and he knew how to make chorizo and menudo," Reyna said. "He would sample my cooking and give me pointers. I'm ... the Mexican cook and he's helping me with tamales. He taught me a lot about cooking. Every time I make chorizo, I think of him."
Don also lent Reyna money if she ran short before payday, and he was equally generous with others in need, from feeding the homeless to forgiving customers' debts.

"He would sell people groceries on credit and never charge them. He had all these little credit slips he would toss out," said his daughter, Christine Don Given.
Don worked long hours at his store to support his immediate family, plus his siblings and parents. He usually wouldn't get home until 8 or 9 p.m.

In the mid-1980s, after working 12-hour days, seven days a week for more than 50 years, Don sold the store and retired.

After that, the Dons traveled occasionally. They took a family cruise last year for their 60th wedding anniversary.

Don also liked putting on silly faces and telling jokes and was a fan of bingo. He cultivated a group of friends at the hall the family frequented.

"Of course he loved to win, but it didn't matter," daughter Phyllis Don Miller said. "He loved the social atmosphere."

Cathy Downs was one of Don's bingo buddies.

"He was a character," she said. "He was fun to be around."

When Don won, he threw his arms up and jiggled his waist in what she called "his bingo jitter."

Even after Don's pulmonary ailment was diagnosed in November, he maintained his sense of humor.

David Given last saw his father-in-law five days before Don's death.
"He was being spoon-fed soup because he couldn't feed himself anymore, but even then he was kicking his feet, rolling his eyes and making sounds every time he took a spoonful. Even though he was in pain and couldn't even feed himself, he just wanted to make us laugh."

One of his last requests, Christine Given said, was for a shot of tequila. Her father was too weak to sit up to swallow the shot, so a sponge was soaked in tequila and put in his mouth.

"He was a person who never complained, never said a bad word about anybody," she said. "We can only hope we can follow in his footsteps and be a little bit like him."

arizona daily star


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