Our lunch several Saturdays ago at Fortune Garden, a Chinese restaurant in El Centro, California, was something of a happy accident.
Dan, Kathryn, and I left Yuma around 11 am with every intention of driving to Calexico, parking, and walking across the border to a Chinese restaurant a few hundred yards away in Mexicali. However, when we arrived at the border, there was no parking to be found anywhere within walking distance of the crossing. Something was going on that had southbound border traffic backed up for miles, although we never figured out what it was. We got close enough to Mexico that my mobile phone registered briefly on a Mexican network, but we remained on the northern side of the border wall that, according to the media, doesn’t exist.
We regrouped by making a brief, unscheduled pit stop at a nearby outlet mall, where Kathryn somehow managed to buy herself a dress in less than fifteen minutes. I pulled out my phone and searched for a news article I’d read some time ago, the one that initially got me curious about Chinese food in Mexicali. My memory had served me correctly, as it had also mentioned at least one restaurant on the U.S. side of the border. After a quick cross-reference on Google Maps — which had decided to switch its units from miles to kilometers, apparently in light of how close to the border we were — we were on our way.
We arrived at Fortune Garden to find a parking lot full of cars. That seemed like a good sign, since during our fifteen-minute drive we passed several other Chinese restaurants, most of which offered no indications of customers. When we walked in, the hostess — in fact a waitress doing more than one job — after confirming we were a party of three, told us to sit in any open booth. We quickly found a booth in the middle of the restaurant.
Our servers at Fortune Garden spoke almost as little English as our servers in Mexicali. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the part of California we were in. I quickly scanned the beer list — Dan was driving, after all — and was somewhat disappointed to see no caguamas offered. I know they exist in the U.S., but perhaps the local distributors don’t carry them in this area, or perhaps they just don’t sell well in restaurants here. I was three-eighths satisfied by ordering a twelve-ounce Tecate.
It was 1 pm in California, but our stomachs were still on Arizona time, where it was 2 pm. As a result, when it came time to order our food, we didn’t hold back. We ordered from all four food groups: barbecue pork, sesame chicken, Mongolian beef, and egg-fried rice.
We were thankful the food arrived quickly, and for the most part it did not disappoint. The low point, in my opinion, was the barbecue pork, which was tougher and fattier than any I’ve had in Mexicali so far, although it was far from inedible. It was also not nearly as pretty as the photo-ready dishes we’ve had south of the border. I had zero complaints about the rest of the food, all of which had just the right amount of spice.
The most unfortunate part of dining in Alta California rather than Baja California was the price. Even after extrapolating for the third diner, we easily paid double what a similar meal costs ten miles to the south. On the other hand, because we didn’t have U.S. Customs and Border Protection standing between our restaurant and our hotel in Yuma or our home in Phoenix, we were able to enjoy our leftovers all the way into Monday. The only way we could have done that in Mexicali is to stay an extra day.