You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce, sweet rolls destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china — Mexican and Chinese food. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of Mexico City.
Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, have nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory. The “Cafe de Chinos” 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.
Asian fusion: From the old country to the new
Tips from Zester Daily's Nicholas Gilman
To the outsider, Mexico might seem like a largely homogenous place, lacking in cultural diversity. Of course the majority of Mexicans are mestizo, a mixture of European (principally Spanish) and indigenous. But the fact is that many ethnic groups besides the Spanish have come in to the mix, most notably African, Lebanese and Chinese. Porfírio Diaz, president-cum-dictator of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, made it his goal to bring Mexico up to its northern neighbor’s technological level. Chinese workers, often fleeing officially sanctioned anti-Chinese policies in the U.S. and well-versed in railroad building, were “invited” to construct the country’s rail system. Working under arduous conditions, these people naturally wanted to improve their lives. Many stayed in Mexico, often intermarrying with locals.
In the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.
Slow and fast food
Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style “quick cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.
Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo, the city’s huge central plaza, were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided daytime social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.
But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which cost about $5.50. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came the archetypal fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the archetypal American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Chinese. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born.
“But we have many locals who have been coming for years, and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me.
Cafe El Pópular
Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old-time quirkiness it had when I arrived in the 1980s. The mid-century past seemed to live: ancient businesses, their facades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Today, only a few of the counter-style restaurants served by uniform-clad waiters and waitresses survive.
Cafe El Pópular, was established in 1948 as a cafe de chinos by Luís Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant and his Mexican wife Felícitas. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the inexpensive hotels near the Zócalo. At that time El Pópular was the only restaurant open past midnight. I would sit at the counter, surrounded by a lively crowd of off-duty working girls and their clients, police officers, drag queens, city workers ending their evening hours, and those about to start the swing shift. The atmosphere was always lively, often raucous — a live-action Ashcan School painting. I didn’t understand the banter, conducted in local chilango slang, but I loved the vibes; I would sit until the wee small hours, savoring a Mexican hot chocolate, while dunking a flaky sweet concha.
The Cafe el Pópular carries on albeit in a newer guise. Run by José Luís Eng, grandson of the founder, his sister Beatriz, a culinary institute graduate, directs the kitchen. No longer offering anything remotely Chinese — the only obvious connection to its Asian past is a Chinese plaque, designed by Eng’s grandmother that hangs over the bar. El Pópular has become a Mexican restaurant par excellence with prices that remain accessible. Ingredients are for the most part local, some even organically produced. The menu reads like a veritable lexicon of “great Mexican classics” — soups, tacos, enchiladas, roast chicken, grilled meats, it’s all here. While remaining a seemingly slick family-style restaurant, Beatriz makes sure the quality is a cut above its corporate neighbors. And, of course, breakfast is still offered around the clock and sweet breads are still homemade.
Nowadays, a new wave of Asian immigrants are arriving. They’re opening more authentic restaurants that attract an increasingly sophisticated public, that cafes de chinos, the fusion-relic of the past, will disappear entirely. They are the remaining evidence of a neglected and little known segment of Mexican society once slighted, that deserves more recognition.
Top photo: Image of poster for the 1949 film “Cafe de Chinos.” Credit: Nicholas Gilman