California Foodways: The Chinese-Mexican Cuisine You’ll Find Only Along the Border
If you ask people in the city of Mexicali, Mexico, about their most notable regional cuisine, they won’t say street tacos or mole. They’ll say Chinese food. There are as many as 200 Chinese restaurants in the city. North of the border, in Imperial County, the population is mostly Latino, but Chinese restaurants are packed. There are dishes in this region you won’t find anywhere else, and a history behind them that goes back more than 130 years.
The Salcedo family sits in a coveted booth at the Fortune Garden restaurant in the city of El Centro. The mother and three adult sisters are almost drooling, waiting for their food to show up. They come from Yuma, Arizona — over an hour away — twice a month just to eat here.
A huge side order arrives, light-yellow deep-fried chilies, a dish I’ve never seen. Then a salt-and-pepper fish, which the Salcedos describe as “Baja-style,” with lots of bell peppers, chilies and onions. But have you ever heard of “Baja-style” dishes in a Chinese restaurant?
Mayra Salcedo explains, “It’s like a fusion, Mexican ingredients with the Chinese. It’s very different than if you go to any other Chinese restaurant, Americanized Chinese restaurant.”
Her sister, Marta, carefully mixes Chinese mustard, a little spicy Sriracha and ketchup into a special only-in-Imperial-Valley dipping sauce for barbecue pork.
“When they order, they don’t say barbecue pork,” says Fortune Garden co-owner Jenissa Zhou. “They say carnitas, carnitas colorada.” That’s “red pork” in Spanish.