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.
You might say that it's Cantonese cuisine mixed with Southwestern flavors. There's avocado and chorizo in the fried rice. Mango alongside saucy beef strips. Arrachera (skirt steak) lays on a bed of snap peas covered in Chinese-style bean sauce.
It's often said that you can find three things anywhere on the planet: McDonald's, Irish pubs, and Chinese restaurants. But here, Chinese food is something like a phenomenon.
Quintessential Mexican food staples are peppered throughout this unusual Chinese cuisine because it was born out of necessity, working with what was available from the regional farmland and the nearby Sea of Cortez and a shrewd appeal to locals' tastes. The result is an inspired fusion cuisine of two of the world's most beloved styles of food.
Chinese food is undoubtedly the signature cuisine here in Mexicali, a bustling city 90 minutes east of San Diego and Tijuana, with the typical border-town economies of maquiladoras and medical tourism. The area caters to thousands of retirees in Yuma and other nearby senior citizen outposts. It's home to a million people and a large Chinese population that started arriving more than a hundred years ago.
There are more than 300 Chinese restaurants in the city, and the local Mexican population eats Chinese food on a weekly basis. According to Luis Miguel Chong, the cultural coordinator for Mexicali's Chinese Association, it's a tradition as entrenched as the local immigrant population, who came here in the early 20th century to escape persecution in the United States following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese didn't have it much better in Mexico. States like Sonora and Coahuila were enacting similar laws, and countries as far east as Cuba were kicking them out. At the time, the only place they were welcomed was Baja, California, when the region was barely inhabited. But there was work in the cotton fields and the local mines. Today, the Cantonese population hovers around 3,000 residents, although a steady stream of predominantly Cantonese immigrants quietly continues to immigrate here. Many suspect that the Chinese population is far higher.
Strangely, there's no discernable Chinatown: there are zero traces of red gates, dragon statues, or decorative pagodas here. I'm told that Cantonese immigrants work in Mexicali restaurants for several years to pay off immigration fees which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Many save money and open restaurants themselves, which might explain why there are over 345 Chinese restaurants in this city. And by the time the second- and third- generation Mexicali transplants come of age, they're fluent in Spanish and English like in most border towns, and fully assimilated. Some no longer speak their parents' native tongue.
This regionalization extends to the tabletops, which look distinctly Mexican. You'll find a bowl of cut limes on every table, and the traditional beverage—aside from pitchers of very sweet iced tea—is communal, quart-sized bottles of Tecate beer. Then there's the plate of chiles: fat, yellow, juicy, spicy-as-hell, fried, and seasoned with a proprietary mix of salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, and other spices the restaurants keeps secret.
You might even see a mariachi band doing the rounds.
"The Mexicali palate is what I like to call the four C's: cerveza (beer), carne (meat), camarones (seafood) and Chinese," says my friend Christian Tagliapietra, a Mexicali native.
Asian-inspired sauces and carbohydrates combined with classic Mexican meats, fish, chiles and vegetables makes for an incredible mishmash. People here have completely embraced this hybrid cuisine as their own. Seeing all these 100 seat dining rooms packed with people on weekday afternoons makes me wonder: In our food-obsessed culture, how long is it going to take until a member of the culinary cognoscenti exports this regional curiosity to the masses? It's certainly not a hard sell.
And the foundation is already in place. Juan Lee, manager of Restaurante Dragon, says his restaurant has the precise fusion down to a science. For most dishes, "30 percent is designed for the Mexican flavor," he says. "The other 70 percent is the authentic Cantonese flavor." He's a wealth of information on local Chinese food, although he's cagey about the exact combination of seasonings that coat those yellow chilies and is politely unenthusiastic about selling the mix to my friend.
Discretion extends to the kitchen, where I'm told the Chinese do all the cooking and the Mexicans only assist with preparation.
It's both cool and perplexing to find that in our technological age of information-sharing, regional food styles still exist in obscurity. But although most of Mexicali's Chinese restaurants keep many of their secrets to themselves, it's easy to imagine this Cantonese-Mexican food—with its instantly recognizable ingredients presented in new ways—becoming popular anywhere else. For now, this immigrants' creation will continue to push things forward in the middle of the Mexican desert.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2014.