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Ben Wentzel

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At La Chinesca, Chinese-American and Northern Baja Cuisine Meet Inside a Former Jiffy Lube

Compelled by the intersection of Chinese and Mexican cuisines found in a neighborhood in Mexicali, Mexico, two chefs wrangle with the line between inspiration and appropriation

Like a lot of restaurants, La Chinesca — the new Mexican-Chinese restaurant operating inside an old Jiffy Lube on Spring Garden Street — was supposed to open last year. The team at 13th Street Kitchens, who also owns Kensington Quarters, Prohibition Taproom, and Cafe Lift, had been preparing for an opening date in May, even knowing it would be a lot of work to convert a former gas station into a restaurant. “You used to be able to drive a car into the space, so there’s all this metal framing in the floor,” Michael Pasquarello, who co-owns the restaurant with Jeniphur Pasquarello, says. Just when they felt they were making progress, the pandemic hit, and “the world took a massive break.”

This past weekend, over a full year since it was supposed to open, the long-awaited La Chinesca held its first dinner service, with pork adobada tacos and smoked salt mezcal palomas, all served under salvaged street lamps and in front of airy, refurbished garage doors. The retro interior design — led by Kate Rohrer of Rohe Creative — feels like if a Jiffy Lube was turned into a Mexican restaurant: it’s both industrial and sunny, warm and workaday.

the inside of la chinesca in springarts, with bright pink tables, salvaged street lamps, a bar, and a sign that reads tacos!
Inside La Chinesca in the SpringArts neighborhood
Ben Wentzel

While converting a pumping station into a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic would be a good enough conversation starter, there are more interesting things for diners at La Chinesca to be curious about. La Chinesca is named for the Chinatown neighborhood in the city of Mexicali in Baja California, Mexico. Near the border to the U.S., La Chinesca is home to the largest Chinatown in Mexico, and in tribute, La Chinesca serves dishes that play on the intersection of cultures in the region. On the menu, diners can expect fried wonton chips and salsa; chicharrones with annatto spice and mayo; and red snapper with cilantro, pineapple, jalapeno, and scallion oil. Influenced by Chinese-American cuisine, baby corns are served elote-style, with black bean mayonnaise and cotija cheese.

Baby corn elote with black bean mayo, scallions, cilantro, and cotija cheese on a pink table
Baby corn elote with black bean mayo, scallions, cilantro, and cotija cheese
Ben Wentzel

Perhaps the most notable thing about La Chinesca, though, is the fact that neither the head chefs, nor the owner, are themselves Mexican or Chinese. They say in opening this new venture, they took inspiration from José Andres’s China Poblano in Las Vegas. Pasquarello and his team visited the city of Mexicali before the pandemic, touring the La Chinesca neighborhood with Tony Woo, local restaurant ambassador and general manager of China Town restaurant in Mexicali, learning how these two cultures intersect. “At three o’clock in the afternoon, the restaurant fills up. People are eating fried rice and fried peppers in this vinegar-y, acid-y sauce with a big bottle of Tecate on the table and a bowl of limes,” Pasquarello recalls about his trip. “We’re approaching these cultures respectfully. We know who we are. We wanted to make sure that we represent the culinary of the region appropriately. We wanted to put it on showcase.”

Fried Peppers with cilantro, cashew, citrus salt, and a beer on a pink table
Fried Peppers with cilantro, cashews, and citrus salt
Ben Wentzel

“I’m very aware that I’m neither Mexican nor Chinese,” Nicholas Bazik, culinary director of 13th Street Kitchens, says. “If I were to try to make an accurate representation of these cuisines and cultures, I’d have to live a hundred lives.”

Knowing this, Bazik says he did his research, leading menu decisions with flavor memories that he’s “accrued over a lifetime.” He hired David Goody — formerly the culinary director of Cook + Solo (owners of Zahav, Laser Wolf, and Dizengoff) — as executive chef, and the trip the team took to the Northern Baja region together deepened their appreciation for the unique intersection of the two culinary traditions. While Pasquarello says they didn’t see “a whole heap of blurring the lines” of the two cuisines in the region, with La Chinesca, they hope to represent both cultures’ staples — like housemade flour tortillas and crispy beef fried rice — in tandem. The highlight for both Bazik and Pasquarello are the fried peppers, a staple of restaurants in the La Chinesca neighborhood.

“I’m in no way an authority and in no way trying to make an accurate representation of Mexican-American, Chinese-American food,” Bazik says. “What I was very specific about from the first time I heard the concept is that we aren’t going to do kung pao tacos. There are a lot of misrepresentations by restaurateurs and operators in the city who do this sort of laissez-faire approach.”

For Bazik, the menu had to come from a place of inspiration, not thoughtless homogenization. “The way that the pantry for these two regions are synonymous with each other: That’s what I want to recreate.”

the outside of la chinesca restaurant with a pink awning, green umbrellas, and people sitting at benches Ben Wentzel

La Chinesca is located at 1036 Spring Garden Street. It is open Wednesday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are available via Resy. Website.

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