East Meets South at La Chinesca

Philly’s pioneering (and delicious!) Mexicali restaurant

In the heart of Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood, a retro-industrial building houses a unique restaurant. La Chinesca is Philadelphia’s first and only “Mexicali” restaurant, which is to say the food is inspired by the city of Mexicali, located in northern Mexico. Sitting at the top of the Baja California peninsula and across the US border from Calexico, California, Mexicali is a regional capital whose population has been markedly impacted by immigration. At La Chinesca bar and restaurant, you’ll find a lively blend of Mexican and Chinese favorites inspired by one of the world’s oldest Chinatown neighborhoods. This great history comes to life in exuberant flavors and a cheerful, colorful setting that reflects owners Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello’s commitment to authenticity.

The story of La Chinesca begins long before its doors opened in the summer of 2021. The space at 10th and Spring Garden Streets was dormant for years before the Spring Garden section began to transform into a vibrant hub of culture and creativity. Pasquarello and his business partner (and wife) Jeniphur seized the opportunity to add to the “Spring Arts” transformation and breathe new life into this forgotten space.

La Chinesca’s origins trace back to the renowned Chinatown of Mexicali, Mexico. Pasquarello drew inspiration from this historic district to bring its vibrant legacy to the Northeast. Mexicali’s Chinatown, fondly known as La Chinesca, stands as one of the world’s oldest, steeped in a rich history shaped by waves of Chinese immigrants who sought refuge there after the U.S. passed the Asian Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Act reveals a painful chapter in American history. For ten years, the Immigration of Chinese laborers was banned, preventing existing immigrants from obtaining citizenship. Faced with limited opportunities and systemic oppression, many Chinese migrants sought freedom just across the Mexican border in Mexicali. Today, Mexicali is home to over 15,000 people of Chinese origin and over 200 Chinese restaurants!

The decor at La Chinesca evokes the bright colors of Mexicali, with neon outdoor lights, colorful furniture with patterned upholstery, and pink diner-style tables inside. Vintage car posters, street light fixtures, and cocktail names like “Fill it, Regular” and “Gear Shift” cleverly hint at the site’s past as a gas station.

While the story behind the restaurant is fascinating, let’s not forget what brought me through those doors in the first place—the exceptional menu. Highlights include the flavorful Wonton Chips ($9), which come with a trio of sauces—Salsa Roja, Salsa Verde, and Duck Sauce; the intriguing blend of sweet and savory in the Pumpkin Tacos ($16); and the unforgettable Carne Asada Lo Mein ($18) featuring spring onion, yucca, and cilantro. Each dish showcases a harmonious blend of flavors, reflecting the culinary ingenuity associated with La Chinesca.

Despite the unique combination of cultures, the La Chinesca family carefully avoids using the word “fusion” to describe its restaurant. Typically, fusion restaurants suggest a melding of culinary traditions in the kitchen. In contrast, La Chinesca’s menu draws inspiration from authentic cuisine rooted in a specific and storied region of the world — you might even call it enchanted. Indeed this fascinating locality was designated Mexico’s first “Magical Neighborhood” in 2023 for its vast cultural and gastronomic significance.

As the weather gets nicer, come enjoy the Spring Garden neighborhood and a unique, vibrant restaurant filled with great character and history!

La Chinesca, 1036 Spring Garden St.
Open daily for dinner from 4pm; Brunch Sat/Sun 11:30am – 3pm; Happy Hour 4-6pm Sunday thru Friday. 
lachinescaphl.com | 267-838-9688 | Yelp | @lachinescaphl

FAST FACTS: Mexico’s famous “La Chinesca” Mexicali Neighborhood 

 

  • It features a series of underground tunnels where Chinese immigrants lived to escape the heat and establish businesses during the late 19th and 20th centuries.
  • During the Prohibition era in the U.S., La Chinesca became a hub for casinos, brothels, and bars, utilizing its proximity to the border for smuggling activities.
  • It is home to about 15,000 people of Chinese origin and has the largest Chinatown in Mexico.
  • At one point, the Chinese population in Mexicali outnumbered Mexicans, with about 10,000 Chinese to 700 Mexicans, influencing the city’s culture and politics.
  • In the 1920s, the Tong wars (a series of feuds in Mexico and the U.S. between gangs of Chinese immigrants or their descendants) erupted over control of gambling and prostitution rings in La Chinesca. The term “tong” — meaning a hall or meeting place — came to be used by the white population in the U.S., usually to refer to secret societies or fraternal organizations that were involved in illegal activities, such as the opium trade or gambling.
  • The Chinese arrived to the area as laborers for the Colorado River Land Company, an American enterprise which designed and built an extensive irrigation system in the Valley of Mexicali.
  • Mexican alarm over Chinese organized crime led to the government-encouraged Movimiento Anti-Chino. In the late 1920s, a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment swept the country and led to the torture and murder of hundreds of Chinese in northern Mexico. The Chinese were numerous enough and politically strong enough to overcome the violence.

🗣️ COMMENTS WELCOME! 😋
What do you think? Have you been to La Chinesca, or enjoyed any of their dishes — or cocktails? Please share below in the Comments, or catch up with me on Instagram @gingersliketoeat. If you enjoyed this feature, please check out last month’s column, all about the very special cultural experience of an authentic Ethiopian coffee “buna” hosted by Germantown’s Salam Cafe every month.

About Eleni Finkelstein 23 Articles
Eleni Finkelstein (aka @gingersliketoeat on Instagram) is a South Jersey and Philadelphia-based food blogger and journalist. She loves traveling, trying new foods, and cheering on Philly sports teams. You can check out her book, "Eat Like a Local: South Jersey" on Amazon.

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