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La Chinesca executive chef David Goody and culinary director Nicholas Bazik love history.
The duo leaned on that shared passion to develop the menu at the new restaurant in Spring Arts, which serves food inspired by Mexicali and is operated by 13th Street Kitchens (Kensington Quarters, Cafe Lift, Prohibition Taproom).
Neither chef has roots in Mexico, but they studied and were inspired by the cultural significance of the town in the northern region of the Baja peninsula, which has a large Chinese migrant population.
Mexicali’s La Chinesca neighborhood began growing in 1903, when Chinese laborers started settling there, in part due to racist laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned them from the United States.
“I definitely am a student of every cuisine,” Goody said. “Trying to read as much as I can and experience as much as I can.”
When Bazik visited Mexicali in February 2020, he found that restaurants said they served either Chinese or Mexican cuisine, but also included plenty of crossovers incorporating local ingredients. Fried rice with avocado, for example.
That dish shows up in the new Philadelphia venture, which is one of few in the city that serves cuisine from Northern Mexico. Many of Philly’s Mexican immigrants hail from the Southern regions, like Puebla and Oaxaca, the chefs noted, so some of La Chinesca’s dishes and flavors may be less familiar to local diners.
Goody and Bazik also drew inspiration from Chinese American dishes they grew up eating. Swapping in baby corn instead of a full ear in the elote dish, for example, is something Bazik said was inspired by childhood memories.
“We’re not trying to be authentic,” he added. “What we saw was Mexican restaurants [and] Chinese restaurants, and they all had little tinges of their culture.”
La Chinesca’s design is also pretty unique.
Long an abandoned Jiffy Lube, the property at 1036 Spring Garden St. was scooped up by the 13th Street Kitchens team in 2018. Their restaurant was originally scheduled to open last year, but of course got postponed by the pandemic.
You can make out the skeleton of the former gas station when you approach. There’s umbrella-covered patio seating where the pumps used to be and garage-door-shaped windows. But the interior has been transformed, thanks to Kate Roher of Rohe Creative. There are two vibrantly colored dining areas, split by a central bar. A private dining room that seats 50 is tucked into a downstairs hideaway illuminated in red.
With tacos, crudo, fried rice, salads, wings, the menu of snacks and small plates starts at $6 and tops out around $16. Hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Here’s our take on a few dishes and drinks to look for when you go.
Baby Corn Elote
Elote is a popular Mexican street food, and this time it’s done in miniature. The corn sits on a swoosh of fermented black bean mayo that cools its spicy kick.
Expect bright flavor in every bite, thanks to diced red onion, jalapeno, and ginger, accentuated by acidic notes from the freshly squeezed lime and diced pineapple. All combine to perfectly texture the light strips of fish.
Corn tortillas are popular in southern regions of Mexico, but in the north, flour tortillas reign supreme, and here they’re made in house before being stuffed with a variety of fillings. The flour is sourced locally, and the recipe omits pork fat or shortener in favor of vegetable oil. Corn tortillas are also available for people with gluten intolerance or allergies.
A mix of shishito and local baby bell peppers sit over a green herb sauce and are topped with chopped cashews. The two garnishes almost form a pesto that coats each sweet-and-spicy pepper mouthful.
Pineapple Chili Kombucha
As the chefs experiment with ingredients, they chat with the bartenders to come up with complementary cocktails and other drinks. This version from the California’s Flying Embers hard kombucha brand has a flavor profile that pairs perfectly with the crudo or elote.