I’m sitting with a giant plate of chop suey beneath the painted gaze of Martin de Porres, the Catholic saint of racial harmony. His solemnity is mocked by the smiling, rosy-cheeked baby dressed for the Chinese New Year who appears on the wall next to him. A busker walks in strumming a mournful Mexican bolero. Outside, Calle del Carmen is overflowing with vendors hawking knock-off designer purses, cheap sunglasses, and sweaters for dogs, while inside, a quiet nostalgia permeates the Cafe Goya, one of the few remaining cafes chinos (Chinese cafes) in Mexico City.
Founded by Chinese immigrants to Mexico City in the early 20th century, cafes chinos were small restaurants popular with the city’s working class, offering a cheap, fast meal and a friendly meeting point for the neighborhood. Most cafes chinos share a sort of 1950s diner aesthetic, with rows of vinyl booths and long common bars with swivel stools. The menus are full of simple, homestyle dishes — some with roots in Chinese cooking, some not. Classic Mexican lunch plates — a grilled piece of meat, rice, and a small salad — are ubiquitous, as well as huevos al gusto for breakfast and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. In some cafes you can still find steaming plates of fried rice, kung pow chicken, and sweet-and-sour pork, but most Chinese dishes have disappeared from menus through the years. Waitresses float by with metal pitchers in each hand to serve cafe lechero — a mix of concentrated coffee and steaming whole milk — and locals often come in just to ogle the delicious selection of pastries, known as pan chino, in the window.
“Oh, that one’s really delicious,” Jesus Chew tells me as his daughter, Maria Guadelupe Chew, sets down a plate holding a crusty popover filled with pastry cream next to my cafe lechero. “Almost no one makes those anymore.” I’m sitting at the Chew family-owned Café Allende, in Mexico City’s bustling Lagunilla neighborhood. Maria Guadelupe is also the cafe’s accountant and on the weekends, she brings her father from his house in the far northwest corner of the city to spend time in the cafe. The elder Chew, a local celebrity, greets patrons as they amble past the ancient cash register and sidle up to the Formica tables.
To the uninitiated, the various styles of pan chino look like other morning treats you find throughout Mexico — pan dulce like biscuits, conchas, panques, and flaky triangle-shaped pastries with apple or pineapple filling. But one bite reveals a slightly denser, moister texture, and with an almost imperceptible salty-sweet tug of war. At Café Allende, Maria Guadelupe pairs mine with a refill of cafe lechero, pan chino’s traditional accompanying beverage, usually served in a vintage soda glass with a tall metal spoon.
Jesus, now 80, came to Mexico from the Canton region (now Guangdong) of China when he was 15 to run Café Allende. His father, Martín, who had come to Mexico a few years prior, purchased the cafe in 1957. Like most cafes chinos in the city at that time, it was a pretty simple place, catering to workers and students looking for an inexpensive coffee and a cheap plate of beans and eggs to fill their stomachs. Today, the crowd is mostly old-timers and a few families reliving old memories, but the working-class spirit remains intact.
Chew remembers a time when there were seven Chinese-owned cafes on Ignacio Allende alone. “They were tiny businesses,” says Jesus. “They sold the bread for 20 centavos and the coffee was one peso.” Now his is the lone survivor.
In recent years, cafes chinos on Allende and elsewhere have been replaced by third-wave coffee shops and commercial restaurant chains like VIPS and Sanborns that serve similar homestyle food and cheap coffee in a diner-like atmosphere. In some, the changes were gradual and happened over time: Many Mexico City visitors and even residents have eaten in some of the city’s original cafes chinos unknowingly. La Pagoda and El Popular, two well-known historic diners on Avenida 5 de Mayo, are both owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.
Jesus’s father purchased Café Allende from a fellow immigrant from Canton, a transaction that was typical, as businesses were often passed from one Chinese immigrant to another. It was a part of the necessary solidarity that existed at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was high and informal moneylending and interpersonal networks were largely the only avenues for immigrants to start their own businesses.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese workers were drawn to Mexico by the possibility of railroad and agricultural work. They were also pushed south by the Chinese Exclusion Act that was signed into law in the U.S. at the end of the 1800s and would become increasingly restrictive for Chinese immigrants over the next two decades. Following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, a rise in Mexican nationalism, increased social and political chaos, and rising poverty led to scapegoating of immigrant populations. The Chinese community in northern Mexico became caught in the crosshairs of the violence for much of the first half of the 20th century, and several massacres of Chinese immigrants led to migration en masse to the country’s capital, where the climate was less violent and there were more opportunities to work.
The cafes chinos were born from that generation of arrivals. Of the handful that survive today, many still hang the traditional red paper lanterns from the eaves of their facade, and feature signage in the antiquated (and problematic) angular font associated with Chinese businesses of the era. In the back of the dining room at Cafe Lucky in the St. María de Ribera neighborhood, a small glass case displays an altar to Buddha; beside it is a photo montage of the owner’s ancestors, a representative blending of first and second generation Mexican Chinese culture.
While a majority of these cafes now have more limited hours, they were once 24-hour establishments, offering a welcoming place for compatriots and locals. “The clientele was not upper class,” says Alfonso Chiu, who has worked at and owned many cafes chinos since he came to Mexico as a child in 1959. “People would come by in the morning, grab a boiled egg from the [bowl on the] table... tap, tap, tap... order their coffee, and eat quickly.”
And of course there was always pan chino, though there are differing theories as to how these baked goods became the de facto Chinese Mexican treat. Jorge Chao Rodriguez, the owner of the now-shuttered Restaurante La Nacional, said in an interview that the Chinese learned pastry-making directly from French masters, and Alfonso Chiu agrees: “They learned from the French in China, working for French families or English families, or working in their bakeries,” he says. “They brought it with them from Asia, the influence, and then later they made it their own. It wasn’t the same as French bread, it changed with different types of flour, different water. The biscuits eaten here, which are delicious, were born from the convergence of those influences.”
Famed 20th century writer and food chronicler Salvador Novo had another take, claiming the Chinese immigrants learned their pastry-making while working on the railroads in the 19th century; other scholars suggest they learned baking in the mining camps out west. Whatever its impetus, it’s clear that baking was a job that was open to recently arrived immigrants and one that they excelled at. “To make bread you don’t have to talk,” says Roberto Yip, the son of Cafe Goya owner Sai Ping Wong, about the many Chinese immigrants that arrived in Mexico speaking no Spanish. “They could just use their hands and their brains.”
“They just found something they wanted to make and figured out a way to do it.” Roberto’s father was a baker at another restaurant before he and Sai Ping Wong (called Anita by her customers) took over Cafe Goya from a fellow immigrant in the mid-1960s. Up until 1954, the neighborhood surrounding Cafe Goya was the heart of Mexico’s National Autonomous University campus and filled with students day and night, skipping class or coming in for a bite after a show at the Goya Theater across the street. As a child, Roberto spent his afternoon drifting in and out of the kitchen to the smell of fresh-baked bread, and filling the restaurant’s milk pitchers for cafe lechero for a few pesos.
“It’s been documented that the Chinese invented that style of coffee in Veracruz,” says Luis Chiu, Alfonso’s son and head chef of Mexico City’s popular Asian Bay restaurant. “Because they drank tea with milk in Hong Kong, they understood that it would be similar to condensed black tea mixed with milk.”
Today, you’ll still find most cafes of the era offer at least a handful of Chinese dishes, too — a few off-the-menu specialties for those hungry for a taste of home: chow mein, chop suey, or simple fried rice, with wide variances in quality and adherence to tradition. But in recent years, most of the Chinese dishes have disappeared from menus, in part because the younger generation has found it difficult to continue the tradition. “There was no one left to make them,” says Roberto Hernandez, Jesus Chew’s brother-in-law who runs Café Allende. He often cooks alongside the elder Chew at home making his favorite Chinese dishes, but says incorporating them back into the cafe’s menu would be difficult. “You really need someone trained [in Chinese cooking].” By far the most sought-after dishes in today’s cafes are simple Mexican classics — chilaquiles, enfrijoladas, pechuga empanizada. Jesus Chew loves the beef soup at Café Allende and Roberto Yip says people come from far and wide to eat Cafe Goya’s chilaquiles, cooked in a low clay bowl.
While fewer of these unique places still exist, there remains a recognition of their special place in Mexico City’s culinary history. “It’s generational,” says Ruben Campos Molina, a longtime neighbor and regular at Café Allende. “My mother used to take me when I was a boy and now my grandson goes there. More than a tradition, it’s a necessity.”
Lydia Carey is a freelance writer based in Mexico City and is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Mallika Vora is a photographer based in Mexico City.