Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada: New China

It’s a frigid October afternoon. I’m walking towards a Chinese restaurant suggested by Lonely Planet. About halfway there, I see about a dozen middle aged Chinese men (obviously from Mainland China based on their hairstyle and the way they wear their white collared shirts) cramming themselves into a 15-passenger van. With toothpicks in their mouths and loud, satisfying burps, I can tell that they just ate. They came out of New China, which was not my destination.

I walk by the last man to get in the van. I say hello to him in Mandarin. He replies. He assures me with a smile of confidence that the food in there is good.

New China could be any generic Chinese restaurant in the American Midwest. There are no chopsticks, just forks and knives. The place mat shows the Chinese zodiac. Soy sauce and sweet-and-sour sauce packets are crammed into bowls on the tables. The menu is entirely in English.

I order the beef noodle soup. It is rarely on the menu but is served at every Chinese restaurant in the world. Although the ingredients are always the same– noodles, vegetables, beef, broth– no two versions are alike. The entree is based on what is available locally. Here, it comes with thin, vermicelli-like, bland noodles. The beef comes sliced in bite sized pieces and is of average quality. The vegetables– broccoli, baby corn, carrots, and bok choy– are all frozen. For being out in the middle of nowhere, in Jack London country, it is a valiant effort.

The owners are a husband and wife team. The husband cooks and the wife serves. They used to work at the husband’s father’s restaurant in Alberta. On the wall is a faded picture of old papa shaking hands with a Canadian P.M. The couple are in their thirties and have two children. They are originally from Guangdong.

They chose to settle in Whitehorse over much-more-popular Vancouver because they liked the slower pace and the more genuine people of a small town. Their children are well integrated and thrive.

As I finish my meal, another customer walks in. The waitress-owner greets him with a Chinese-accented: You here for pick-up, eh?

Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico: Tai Pe

When the Chinese immigrated to Latin America, the first city to receive them was Tapachula, near the Mexico-Guatemala frontier. The Chinese community has really blended in. They are generally short, slightly pudgy, and darker skinned. Aside from their eyes and subtle facial features, it is difficult to tell them apart from their Latino/Indian brethren.

I open the phone book and see a lot of Chinese restaurants to choose from– Yan-Yan, Confucio, Tai Pe, Bambu, Kam Long, Long Yin (to name just a few). They all offer “autentica comida china“. I choose Tai Pe (named after the largest city in Taiwan, Taipei) because I want to see if it offers oyster omelets.* It does not.

I arrive at high noon. The facade is bright red and has a pagoda motif. The Chinese characters on the sign outside are poorly written, as if drawn by Scooby Doo animators in that Chinatown episode. Very inautentico. The front half of the restaurant is open air. Under the oppressive heat and humidity, I move to the back half, which is sealed tight and air conditioned.

There are about a dozen tables with white plastic beach chairs. On the tables are soy sauce, toothpicks, salt (with a lot of rice mixed in to avoid clumping), and Bufalo Jalapeño Salsa. Two young Mexican men make up the entire waitstaff. One of the them has a Dodgers jersey. I never quite figured out whether any Chinese people worked there.

The menu is a long sheet of paper. Like many American sushi places, I pencil in check marks next to the items I want. There are a lot of mystery entrees, including “Chop”, “Kai Tian”, “Sopa Esp. con Hondo de oro y Tall.”, and “Kai Kiu”.

I order a beer. It comes with a plate of salt and lime wedges. I then order the combination fried rice (arroz frito especial). The portion is certainly big, but I hardly recognize it. The tiny pieces of chicken, beef, pork, and shrimp are almost burnt to a crisp. The rice, originally white, is brown from the soy sauce and overcooking. It looks and tastes similar to the fried rice I had at a San Francisco Bay Area Chinese restaurant with a large Latino clientele.

I pour the jalapeño salsa on my rice. It is still bland. As I eat, I admire the Japanese prints on the walls. There are also several Chinese countryside paintings, signed by the artist Teresa Delgado. She must be a local.

* Oyster omelets, or oh-ah-jian, is a popular dish in Taiwan. It was born out of necessity. During a siege by the Dutch, the locals collected the only provisions on hand– eggs, oysters, and potato starch– et voila!

Image source: Maxichamp