Café Manuel, Last of the Cafes de Chinos

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You can distinguish the little storefront of Cafe Manuel from a block away by its two red Chinese lanterns hanging over the entrance. Its name is hand-lettered in an “oriental” script no longer deemed politically correct elsewhere. The window on the left side of the door tempts with a display of pan dulce destined to accompany coffee. On the right, lettering affixed to the window offers comida mexicana y china. This establishment, which opened its doors in 1934, is a typical cafe de chinos, a Chinese cafe. Only a few authentic ones remain, scattered throughout older neighborhoods of the city.
Fondly remembered by urban Mexicans of a certain age, cafes de chinos are to Mexico what the typical coffee shop once was to the major American metropolis. They usually feature a counter and a few booths, display nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha and a Chinese calendar. They offer coffee, sweet breads, light food both Mexican and ostensible Chinese; many are open around the clock. They are a part of Mexican urban lore, 20th-century collective nostalgic memory.  “Cafe de Chinos” a 1949 film-noir  features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical cafe.

While Chinese workers were brought in the 19th century to build railroads, in the 1920s, Mexico’s concern over Chinese immigrants’ involvement in organized crime led to the Movimiento Anti-Chino; this anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the murder and deportation of many people of Chinese origin. Some of them, returning to a politically unstable China or a depressed U.S., eventually made their way back to Mexico, decades later. Those who remained, often intermarrying with Mexican nationals, opened laundries, import businesses … and restaurants.

Entrepreneurial Chinese, already versed in American-style and their own “quick cooking,” opened eateries

specializing in the kind of light meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk were the specialty.

Traditional Mexican offerings such as enchiladas and tamales were prepared, as were “American/Chinese” dishes like chop suey and fried rice. These eateries grew in popularity, especially in dense city centers, and near railroad stations, feeding the new breed of round-the-clock workers who needed breakfast at midnight, or dinner at 6 a.m. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1940s and ’50s. In Mexico City, the streets surrounding the Zócalo were full of them. Calle Madero boasted at least four, as late as the 1960s. Then, inevitably, newer styles trumped old and these small, old-fashioned places, which not only served customers but also provided round the clock social centers, began to close their doors. Glitzy chains and U.S.-based fast food venues replaced them.

But traditions die hard, especially in a slower-paced, less-eager-to-modernize Latin America. Cafe Manuel hasn’t changed. It offers two set lunches, one Mexican and the other Chinese. Sweet rolls are made in-house, coffee is fresh, milk frothy and hot. I chose a menú chino, which costs about $60 pesos. It consisted of a pleasant, vaguely “Chinese tasting” chicken broth with bok choy, flavored with sesame oil. Next came fried rice, quickly sautéed with vegetables and egg, its smoky aroma preceding it to table. And the chop suey, the quintessential American-Chinese dish of stir-fried whatever, thickened with cornstarch, turned out to consist mostly of bean sprouts, onion and celery and a bit of chicken in a lightly sweet soy broth. It was all fresh and good, if not authentically Asian. Dolores, the longtime waitress there, explained during a comida-time lull that nowadays customers mostly order the Mexican food. “It’s cheaper,” she reminds me. Few customers are of Chinese extraction; even the cook is Mexican-born. “But we have many locals who have been coming for years  and don’t expect our menu to change,” she assures me. As the surrounding area starts to fill with a new wave of Chinese immigrants, perhaps there’s a chance that Café Manuel and the café de chinos tradition will carry on into the 21st century.

Café Manuel
Av. Tlalpan 1235, between Coruña and Santa Anita in the Viaducto Piedad neighborhood south of centro.
From Metro Viaducto, exit following the sign for  “SALIDA c. Coruña col. Viaducto Piedad”. Turn left exiting the station and walk about half a block.

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About The Author

Nicholas Gilman is a food writer based in Mexico City; he’s author of Good Food in Mexico CIty: Food Stalls, Fondas, Fine Dining.