If there’s anything La Chinesca deals in, it’s slightly unapproachable cool. Owned by 13th Street Kitchens, which operates brunch staple Café Lift and Franklin's Table’s KQ Burger, the restaurant feels like the rest of their arsenal. It’s a place you take an out–of–towner when you’re trying to impress—but not overwhelm—them with your Philly knowledge.
La Chinesca lives in a retrofitted Jiffy Lube on the corner of 11th and Spring Garden streets. And, eating there is exactly what you’d expect from dining in a gentrified auto body shop. That’s not bad so much as it’s transparently charming. The lighting is fluorescent and the bones are retro–industrial, with light pink diner–style tables and a long bar reminiscent of an Austin Powers movie. The line of post–concert diners spilling out from Union Transfer wraps around the front. The wait staff wear sleek band tees bearing the restaurant’s name.
Everything at La Chinesca is refined, yet done in a way that’s meant to signal they don’t care about refinement. And yet what I want most from this Chinese–American Mexican fusion concept isn’t overt polish. It’s large portions, homeyness, and an earnest appreciation for what the disparate cultures bring to the table.
Named after Mexico’s largest Chinatown, which is located near the United States–Mexico border in Mexicali, La Chinesca is supposed to riff on the intersection of cultures in the region. Co–owner Mike Pasquarello, Culinary Director Nicholas Bazik, and Executive Chef David Goody made several trips to Mexicali and the rest of Northern Baja for research, reveling in how the cuisines work in tandem with one another. (Think fried rice and fried peppers served with Tecate, as Pasquarello told Eater.)
“I’m very aware that I’m neither Mexican nor Chinese,” Bazik said in the Eater interview, reflecting on his team’s decidedly non–Mexican, non–Chinese origins. “If I were to try to make an accurate representation of these cuisines and cultures, I’d have to live a hundred lives.”
Still, despite the trips to Mexico and the top–shelf ingredients, La Chinesca’s menu finds more parallelism than intersection—and, at times, a Westernized execution.
For starters, everything is served tapas style, with the standard recommendation being two to three small plates per person. Save for the implications of imposing a Spanish style of dining on the cuisine of a country still recovering from the vestiges of colonialism, bite–sized portions somehow feel inauthentic here. When I think of authentic Mexican food, I think of family. I think of oversized plates. I think of the end of pretension, not the superimposition of it—as though eating Mexican or Chinese food as these cultures intended somehow isn’t good enough.
The problem with La Chinesca isn’t that it’s bad Chinese food or bad Mexican food. The problem is that it’s a thoughtless mixture of the two, where fusion is defined as throwing a Chinese dish next to a Mexican one and calling it “elevated.” The menu’s supposed standout is a pair of birria tacos, where the accompanying consomé is a bowl of standard miso soup instead of a broth steeped in the meat’s brazing liquid. The pairing feels trite, and the tacos don’t need the soup, anyway. It detracts from the beef’s sweet smokiness and dampens the flour taco shell, which is deliciously soft and prepared in house.
Similarly thrown together combinations are the salt and pepper squid Caesar and the baby carrots that run $8 for a plate. The salad, which is seasoned with sesame and shallots (for obvious reasons), feels like “just another Caesar, but with squid thrown on top” to quote my dining companion. As for the baby carrots, they’re drenched in a garlic soy sauce so potent that it defeats the purpose. The entire plate tastes like bok choy.
Still, La Chinesca has moments of brilliance. Its take on chips and salsa is cheeky and smart, with puffy, crispy wonton chips standing in for tortilla chips. Compulsively snackable and an actual attempt at fusion, this sole appetizer sets the stage for a better La Chinesca, one that can move past route pairings into the true terrain of upscale fusion dining, where appreciation breeds experimentation.
All in all, La Chinesca is chic, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time sipping mezcal distilled from snake venom in a place where mechanics used to take smoke breaks. But the restaurant isn’t what it sets out to be either, a brazen fusion eatery that reminds us what the best of cultural appreciation can look like. It’s a fun dining experience, sure. But in a time where it feels like chefs need to whitewash ethnic food to enjoy it, is that really all it can be?
TL;DR: Fun drinks and appetizers, but not fusion food.
Location: 1036 Spring Garden St.
Hours: Tues. — Sun. 4 p.m — 10 p.m.