The recent chatter about Mex 5 soon being paved to meet Mex 1 below Catavina reminded me of my trips in the late 70s to Mexicali for Chinese dinners.
The first of these was made with Tom Miller, close friend, WON Baja editor and columnist, and avid fisherman — a quickie fishing exploration trip.
THAT SOPHISTICATION PROBABLY comes from decades of people eating Mexican-influenced Chinese food.
"Ever had Chinese food in Mexicali, buddy?" he asked hunched over the wheel of his Subaru with his "Senor Baja" personalized license plate.
“Nope,” I responded glancing over at him dubiously to see if he was serious.
He was. Sure enough, as we crossed the Calexico-Mexicali border, he drove into the center of Mexicali, pulling into a crowded parking lot in front of a Chinese Restaurant! It was apparent this wasn't his first visit. He waved away the menu and our table was soon loaded with a variety of dishes of every description. The owner and his family hovered over us and beamed when we complimented them on the wonderful meal they served us. It was some of the best Chinese food I had eaten!
I couldn’t wait to return and it wasn't long before Yvonne and I made a weekend water-skiing trip to the Salton Sea. As day one of our trip came to a close, we excused ourselves from the frolicking group of family and friends, and I treated her to one of the best Chinese meals she had ever eaten.
The history of this town, perched on the U.S. border, is fascinating. It seems thousands of Chinese laborers were imported into the United States during the latter part of the 1800s to put the nation on iron wheels.
When the train track was completed, the workers were to return to China, but many wanted to remain in what is now Imperial County and opted not to return to China.
Spurred by anti-Chinese laborer sentiment among American workers, the 1882 law banned immigrants from China from entering the U.S. Tens of thousands went to Cuba, South America and Mexico instead. The Mexican government welcomed the Chinese immigrants in the sparsely populated border region to work on farms and in the mines and canals.
Settling along the U.S./Mexico border, they became grocers, merchants and restaurant owners, while others managed to return illegally and make lives in the U.S. — including Imperial County.
According to historians, the Chinese invented undocumented immigration into the U.S. from Mexico. They were smuggled in with the help of guides hired to lead them across the border -- smuggling across with false papers, on boats and trains -- the infrastructure being invented by the Chinese.
These restaurants that we enjoy are remnants of the Chinese population that filled the U.S./Mexico borderlands in Mexicali and in Baja California.
If you question people in the city of Mexicali about their most notable regional cuisine, they don’t say street tacos or mole … they say Chinese food! In this city of nearly one million, the number of Chinese restaurants is near 200.
In the kitchens, the cooks speak to each other in Cantonese — with the waiters they may communicate in Spanish and English; and the waiters? They usually communicate in both Spanish and English.
Restaurant owners in Mexico claim their customers are more sophisticated about Chinese food than those in Imperial County.
That sophistication probably comes from decades of people eating Mexican-influenced Chinese food. Once, it was a necessity: Chinese cooks used Mexican ingredients like chilies, jicama and certain cuts of meat because that was what was available. Now it's part of a culinary legacy.
There's a new dish at El Dragon, one of the oldest restaurants there — arrachera beef (skirt steak), served with asparagus and black bean sauce. A clear Mexican influence … asparagus could be both Chinese and Mexican, but the sauce, the black bean, that's Chinese.
Locals say people still come from China to work in Mexicali restaurants, and sometimes move north to work in Chinese kitchens in Imperial County. Their goal is to provide better opportunities for their families, better educations and maybe to earn dollars instead of pesos.
In other words, the same reasons that drew their ancestors here from southern China 130 years ago.
These days, anytime Yvonne and I travel through Mexicali, it has become a tradition for us to enjoy a lunch or early dinner along with memories of other meals in the area we have shared with friends over the years. With Mex 5 soon to be completed, I suspect that we will be sharing some of our favorite places with many Baja travelers taking the new route who won't be able to resist the opportunity to sample the marvelous fusion of Mexican-influenced Chinese food found in Mexicali.