De Shi Zheng, owner of the original Fresh Tortilla restaurant that served as the catalyst for future Chinese-Mexican TexMex, did not want to get into the Chinese food business for many reasons. One contributing factor was the booming and overcrowded nature of the Chinese food industry in New York City.
Chinese restaurants originally emerged as a means to provide warm cooked meals to working immigrant Chinese males – 74% of the Chinese American population in 1940 as opposed to females – whose wives were left at home across the Pacific Ocean. In the mid-1900s, the industry boomed and extended its customer base to immigrants and native-born Americans alike, with four hundred Chinese restaurants in Manhattan alone by the end of the century! This boom provides plenty of competition and added challenges for owners trying to find their own niche and sustain a successful business.
However, the main reason driving entrepreneur Zheng’s decision was a lack of culinary expertise and money. Typical Chinese recipes are complicated and require many ingredients which Zheng and his original six-member staff could not adequately prepare let alone afford. Fresco Tortilla only uses eight ingredients in the preparation of its entire menu, including cheap meats such as chicken.
However, to truly begin this story, we have to go way back… we’re talking 500 years back!
This unlikely bond between Chinese and Mexican culture did not come out of nowhere! In fact, the two have been interacting since the 16th century via trade of silver, silk, and other goods on grand ships called Manila Galleons. These famous treasure ships, some as great as 2,500 tons, set sail from a coastal port city in Western Mexico dominated by Spain at that time called Acapulco. The Galleons left Acapulco with millions of silver pesos, headed for Manila in the Philippines, an area then colonized by Spain. There the ship was able to exchange pesos for goods, and deliver pesos to the colony which would then purchase such goods. Trade was profitable, as rare items such as silk, spices, and ivory were unique to the East and otherwise inaccessible to South America; Asian commodities were of course much sought after for this reason.
The two countries’ link continued on into the 19th century, specifically in the early 1850s, when Chinese immigrants began to settle Mexico and perform working class jobs such as irrigation and railroad construction.
Because of this, Chinese and Mexican foods have often interacted both ways. One of the most notable examples is the employment of soy sauce in some Mexican ingredient lists. Pescado Zarandeado, translated “Shaken Fish”, is made up of a mixture of many ingredients you would expect to see in a Mexican dish such as hot sauce, salsa, and cilantro; it also surprisingly includes up to two tablespoons of soy sauce.