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The L.A. Taco Guide to Life-Changing Asada and the Fascinating, Delicious Chinese Mexican Food in Mexicali

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here comes a time in the life of an Angeleno who follows the taco lifestyle to graduate from Tijuana and drive just two hours more southeast—to the other underestimated border city in Baja California: Mexicali. 

For those additional two hours of listening to your favorite podcast and reflection, you will be rewarded with life-changing carne asada tacos, perspective-shifting flour tortillas, and fascinatingly delicious Mexican Chinese food.   

I personally confirmed this last weekend after having the privilege of accompanying Jennifer Feltham of Sonoratown on one of her bi-weekly outings to Sonora to pick up Sonoran flour for their flour tortillas. Mexicali happens to be on the way to Sonora’s closest border city to Los Angeles, San Luis Rio Colorado. 

Mexicali offers as many border city attractions as Tijuana, with an extra layer of complex history full of Chinese immigration. There is a thriving craft beer scene, tacos that are worth traveling for, and a dark history full of underground gambling opium dens and both American and Mexican racism. Nonetheless, in 2020, Mexicali stands as an exciting destination in Mexico for food and drink that is driving distance from Los Angeles, perfect for a free weekend if you leave by noon on a Friday or for an extended weekend coming up.

Here is my L.A. Taco-approved itinerary, guided by Feltham and tipped from Chicali (Mexicali’s nickname) natives. It’s not meant to be the definitive guide on what to eat and drink and if you have more places, feel free to add them in the comment section. The more reasons we have to celebrate and drive to Mexicali, the better. 

While Mexicali is generally a lot more chill than Tijuana and I never felt concerned for my personal safety at any point, remember to always be aware of your surroundings, park and walk in well-lit streets, and be respectful. 

What local artist to bump to stay awake during the drive

Juan Cicerol 

The Mexicali-born-and-raised modern norteño music artist gets down with his punk-rooted songs, filled with him shouting at the top of his lungs and the occasional burp. They are a little a bit [Mexican] country and a little bit punk rock, yet somehow manages to respect both genres.

Where to exchange your money for a good rate

Centro Cambiario Durán, and close to our hotel recommendation. 

Where to stay

Calafia Hotel

This hotel is located in a central part of Mexicali known as Los Pinos. The rooms are affordable, clean, and secure, with a private parking lot. The WiFi in the rooms is smooth and the service is friendly. It is also walking distance to some great Chinese Mexican restaurants and nearby bars.

Where to eat Mexican Chinese food 

Dragon Restaurante 

This is one of the more popular old school Chinese Mexican food places in Mexicali and the one that is preferred by a lot of the older residents of Mexicali. It is a grandiose establishment with dragons everywhere, excellent servers, and high-ceilings inside its huge dining room. One thing to keep in mind while you marvel through their menu full of food history and interesting Spanish translations of classic Cantonese dishes is that Mexican Chinese dining culture is all about generosity and abundance. 

In other words, when they say family-style dining. They mean Mexican-family-style dining. The pile of fried rice is huge. They are not sheisty with the shrimps, and no matter how careful you order, you will always have leftovers. The Mexican Chinese history materializes in subtle ways, such as cream cheese folded inside their tender fried fish-and-shrimp balls (albondigas, on their menu).  It’s a wise choice to ask your waiter what their favorite dish and then ask very nicely if they can serve you a half order. 

Just don’t forget to order a couple of caguamas (32-ounce bottle of beer that is indicative of a good time) of Tecate Light, because it’s practically jasmine tea and you’re going to need all the fat-cutting tannins for this feast. 

Where to eat and drink if you are a xipster foo 

La Meche.

Agaves on the wall outside this small restaurant lure you into the menu here full of pretty tacos and Chabelas, Mexicali’s version of a michelada. The chef has dreadlocks and there are plenty of distilled agave drinks to make any agave nerd happy. On a Friday night, the tables were full of mostly young people and there was a one-hour wait, so plan accordingly.   

Where to go pound a few brews and get a taste of Mexicali’s highly cracking beer scene

El Sume

Mexicali’s list of breweries making excellent cervezas artesanales is growing every day. Spearheaded by Cucapá, many others have followed in the footsteps. For the most part, all Mexican-style craft beers tend to lean towards the sessionable refreshing side, rather than hoppier, syrupy, and higher ABV-leaning American craft beer style. This makes its craft beer scene much more approachable. At El Sume, they have a whopping nine refrigerators stocked with Mexican craft beer, along with a rotating tap list. If you like a certain style, ask the bartender for a recommendation. There is a beer style for everyone here, I promise you. 

Where to see Mexicali’s Chinese history   

La Chinesca

In 1915, 85 percent of Mexicali’s population were immigrants from Guangzhou, China (formerly known as Canton).La  Chinesca was the thriving downtown of Mexicali. It was full of underground gambling and opium dens. Over the years with an anti-Chinese movement growing in Mexico, the population moved elsewhere and left behind their businesses. Nowadays, many of its buildings are falling apart and associated as a hub for the city’s prostitution. However, there are still a handful of residents who are holding it down and attempting to build it back up. El Manicomio and Haiku comida+cultura japonesa are just a couple of these businesses that are persevering, along with a few artesanias vendors. Don’t forget to stop for some Mexicali-style, pinkie-sized flautas at Las Tradicionales Flautas while you’re there. Parking is ample and as always when in a border city, a trip during the day is a safer choice than at night. 

Where to pick up a bottle of tequila to bring back home

Central Licorera de Mexicali

You are allowed to bring back one bottle of tequila back to the States with you. This shop is located near La Chinesca and has great prices. I couldn’t get enough of a bottle of Los Gonzalez Reposado from there. 

Where to end your night and see God in tacos

Asadero Acatlán de Juárez

Aguja. The beautiful, fatty, juicy, bacon-like beef cut, is king in Mexicali. If you’ve read any story on Sonoratown, you’ve probably heard Feltham praise this northern Mexican unique rib cut of beef, rightfully so. This 24-hour spot makes some of the best carne asada (aguja) tacos I’ve tasted in my life. The handmade flour tortillas are like smashed croissants, flakey, buttery, and made fresh throughout the day so you always eat them after their first toasting. Their banchan-like salsas setup mimick the feeling of pure joy you felt that first time you tried Korean BBQ. There is one for everyone’s heat and textural preference, but I personally loved the one with slices of charred nopales in it. Don’t forget to wash it all down with a milky, refreshing agua de cebada 2 the dome.

 

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Where to eat the elusive handmade sobaquera-tortilla burritos in Mexicali

Burritos Sonora

Mexicali is only about an hour away from Sonora and it would be a crime to be this close and not eat as many sobaqueras as you can. Feltham found a stand that specializes in the pillowcase-sized flour tortillas that are so paper-thin and chewy that they cannot be made by machine, only by hand. Stop here and ask the kind vendors to fill it with whatever you’d like: machaca, beans, bistec con papas, chicharrón en salsa, or carne adobada. If you love them as much as we do, order some sobaqueras to go.  

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