Would you like a box for that?
Chinese influence on Mexican culture has an old and complex root structure. Hundreds of years ago, Spanish merchants sailed across the Atlantic to the “New World,” bringing Asian goods to trade for precious metals. During the 19th century, as the United States expanded westward, Chinese laborers braved the Pacific to help build infrastructure to support burgeoning North American communities.
Today, with much of the nation focused on immigration, asylum, and “caravans,” it’s worth recalling the first time the U.S. government enacted any significant limitation on immigration into the country. This happened in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively barred most Chinese immigrants from entry and citizenship. Chinese individuals already in the U.S. who left after that year couldn’t re-enter without proving that they weren’t laborers (a high burden).
By contrast, the Mexican government welcomed Chinese immigrants willing to work in Baja California. As a result, tens of thousands of people denied entry into the U.S. settled just south of the border. Out of necessity, they injected local ingredients into cooking styles more familiar to them. The result is a culinary legacy now most prominent in Mexicali, about two-and-a-half hours west of Tijuana.
In the 21st century, a kind of cultural role reversal here in greater Richmond inspired Wong Gonzalez‘s “Mexinese” concept. As Chris Staples of EAT Restaurant Partners described it to Richmond Magazine:
While I was the general manager of Wild Ginger in 2010, Chef Ken [Liew, from Singapore] had a kitchen staff composed of primarily Latin and Mexican line cooks. Each of them had to be trained on both the technical side of cooking Asian food with woks, which is very difficult, and the subtle skill of cooking with Asian spices, proteins and sauces. After they mastered these techniques they started making “family meal” dishes for the staff using spices and ingredients from their own background. They would make chorizo fried rice, huevos rancheros with chashu pork, and an assortment of wok stir-fries with all sorts of cool Chinese and Mexican flavors thrown in there, a true blending of cultures.
Sometimes when you hold two distinct thoughts in your mind at the same time, you realize that their boundaries are fuzzier than they seemed. Unfortunately, the American “melting pot” conceit doesn’t avoid the problem of putting people in boxes, often labeled by race (“Where are you really from?”). For better or worse, human brains evolved to sort the elements of our environment into recognizable categories. But as the share of Americans identifying as “multiracial” grows and the world becomes ever more connected, some old box labels might lose significance. Considering the intersection of Chinese and Mexican cuisine, food writer Jason Kessler (no, not that one) observes that “the flavor profiles are strikingly similar”:
Isn’t moo shu pork just a distant relative of the burrito? Wouldn’t Mexican tamales count as cousins of the Chinese zongzi? The combination may sound strange at first, but after a few bites it all starts to make sense.
Indeed, the fundamental triumph of Wong Gonzalez is that its innovations not only make sense but seem natural. As Staples has acknowledged, the restaurant’s name can evoke racial stereotypes. But the fare on offer, devised and prepared by chefs from Singapore and Mexico, is no gimmick. Visit a few times and your brain might even create a new mental “box” for this cuisine, instead of labeling it a “fusion” of otherwise distinct culinary traditions.
Happiness is a warm bowl of nachos
Wong Gonzalez is at its best as a happy-hour destination, even for those seeking happiness at unconventional hours. The bar is prominent, the tap selection is thorough, and the cocktails are exciting. Varieties of Belle Isle Moonshine figure prominently in the restaurant’s concoctions. But from 4pm-7pm, I’m never disappointed with a house margarita for $5.
On a recent lunch visit, an irresistible seasonal menu greeted us at our table, and I immediately asked for an autumnal creation featuring Belle Isle Blood Orange with sage, Cappellitti, and lime. But that cocktail apparently involved a time-intensive sage infusion that, at 11:30am, wasn’t fully complete. “We can make it for you, but the sage won’t come through as much,” our server explained.
Still determined to start drinking before noon, I ended up with a “Boozy PSL,” made with Belle Isle Cold Brew and embellished with chocolate and graham. It was a fun, sweet cocktail that I imprudently treated as an aperitif, but which would work best as an alternative to dessert.
The sage caveat was an affirmation that Wong Gonzalez takes bartending seriously. It’s never fun to tell a customer that you can’t deliver on a menu item, and what are the odds that I would really find the sage too subtle? (Have you ever touched a sage leaf? That fragrance carries.) But the message I got was: “You deserve our best, and right now that cocktail won’t be our best.” It was a small thing, but I felt it showed both pride in the craft and respect for me.
To complement its bar credentials, Wong Gonzalez’s happy-hour wheelhouse embraces its food as well. My favorite edibles are “Hawker Platos” (appetizers), a reference to Chef Ken Liew’s work in Singapore’s food stalls. Definitely treat yourself to the Chashu Pork Nachos, decked out with black-bean puree, chorizo, avocado, and sriracha aioli. (“Wow!” raved the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jo Lord.) My other go-to small plate is the South of the Border Calamari, with perfectly-crisped tempura, an aromatic blend of wok-fried cilantro, peppers, and onion, and a bright gyoza-style dipping sauce. (If you don’t care for seafood, the Fiesta Bites apply the same concept to chicken.)
A lighter lunch could be a shared Hawker Plato plus your own pair of tacos, with either a conventional (e.g. BBQ Pork) or adventurous (e.g. Silver Fish) filling. The cashew garnish on most taco options tastes out of place to me, but it’s still worth a try before requesting any alterations from the kitchen.
On our recent visit, I decided to indulge in the Beef Bulgogi Burrito, packed chock-full of rice, meat, and stir-fried peppers and onions and served in neat halves for more dignified consumption.
I love a fresh-grilled tortilla and, as usual, the bulgogi was perfect. Ultimately, though, the burrito selections at Wong Gonzalez (and most restaurants, to be honest) are a better choice for my husband, who delights in refined grain. My own paleo leanings limited me to eating just half the order.
But there’s nothing wrong with putting leftovers in a box.