Head to the US-Mexico border and find a Chinese food scene like none other

The World
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In the Fortune Garden kitchen in El Centro, California, near the Mexican border, chefs speak to each other in Cantonese, and waiters give orders in Spanish.

Vickie Ly

Taquerias and Mexican restaurants are old hat along the California-Mexico border.

Look harder, though, and spot another type of cuisine that dates back more than 100 years — a kind of fusion from before fusion was a thing.

You'll find it at a restaurant in the California city of El Centro, just north of the Mexican border. Families wait to be seated while others line up for takeout. In one booth, the Salcedo family digs into their first course: a huge plate of light yellow, deep-fried chilies. Next, a salt-and-pepper fish, which the family describes as “Baja-style,” with lots of bell peppers, chilies and onions.

Yes, Baja style. But this isn’t Mexican food. We’re at Fortune Garden, a Chinese restaurant that mixes Mexican ingredients into its dishes.

"It’s very different than if you go to any other Chinese restaurant, Americanized Chinese restaurant," says Mayra Salcedo.

Rumors are that some chefs around here marinate pork in tequila.

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The Salcedo family drives over an hour from Yuma, Arizona, to Fortune Garden restaurant, near the Mexican border.

Credit:

Vickie Ly

Robert Chao Romero, an associate professor of at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains the reason for this culinary twist. "The restaurants that you see now are the remnant of the Chinese population that used to fill the US-Mexico borderlands,” he says.

Why? Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 1882 law banned people from China from entering the US. So tens of thousands went to Cuba, South America and to Mexico. Many settled along the Mexican border, becoming grocers, merchants and restaurant owners. Others managed to cross into the US.