The betrayals are subtle at first. A server is bewildered by limes, so after numerous delays the Corona arrives with a narrow wedge of lemon. The margaritas, with milky clouds roiling like turbid thunderheads in the icy fluid, leave powdery residue on the lips that accumulates as a tacky paste in the corners of the mouth. Faded photographic murals of Cancun beachscapes and groups of mariachi musicians consume tracts of green, gold and red wall not covered by sombreros. Mariachi music pulses through cheap speakers bolted in the ceiling corners.
At first glance, the menu speaks a typical Tex-Mex dialect: enchiladas, burritos, refried beans, rice, fajitas and hard or soft tacos in shells of flour or corn. Anthony Kohler, my adopted translator and guide, looks up from the menu and smiles. Born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany, before settling in Michigan, Kohler soaks up languages with the thirst of a parched sponge. He speaks Spanish and German deftly, with scraps of French and Italian tossed in. While his stay in China has been only months, he has so successfully guzzled Mandarin he can quickly decode insults and hustles on the streets of Beijing. "I remember the first few times I tried to order beef in Chinese," he says. "The women would look at me funny, kind of startled." Niu rou (pronounced "new row") is the Chinese term for beef, its literal translation being "cow meat." But when his Mandarin was green, Kohler says he muffed the pronunciation slightly so that it came off as nu rou. Nu is roughly pronounced "noor" without the "r." Nu is the Chinese word for woman.
We're at Niña Mexican Restaurant, just a few blocks from Qing Hua University in Beijing. It might seem strange to dine on Mexican food in the birthplace of Peking duck and the Little Red Book. Yet it's no odder than eating kung pao chicken or boiled pork and leek dumplings in a Plano strip mall, except that Chinese restaurants have pebbled the Dallas-Fort Worth landscape much longer and in far greater numbers than Mexican restaurants have endured in Beijing. That being the case, why can't Dallas do good Chinese or at least respectable authentic Chinese? To unravel the riddle, I traveled to China to chew its food, down its drinks and be teased by its quirky bustle. This was done not through the typical junket conga of staged tastings, orchestrated dinners and demonstrations designed to bestir the kitchen voyeurism rampant among America's "foodies." It was done through random meals in disheveled diners, hidden speakeasy-esque parlors, tiny noodle houses, off-beat hotel banquet rooms, a dining rail car and private homes. I sampled thick wheat buns and delicious chicken gizzards and tiny sparrows on skewers from street vendors and snacked on dried hawthorn fruit and sweet sausage sticks in bomb shelter ruins not far from the once-jittery Sino-Mongolian border, near where my sister Lynn teaches English to Chinese students at the Ningxia Institute of Science and Technology in Dawukou.
At Niña, a basket of stale chips arrives with a dull, mushy salsa pimpled with faded, browning tomatoes. We chew on steak fajitas of desiccated, leathery beef and peppers and onions cooked into fettuccine flaccidity. We munch dry, deflated enchiladas and burritos topped with cool, hardened melted cheese and butted against caulky blobs of refried beans and flattened pillows of furry rice. One of our companions, a young Wisconsin native who teaches English to Chinese elementary students, says she heard Niña is owned by a Russian. I can't confirm this, but the menu seems to corroborate it. The prix fixe option has four courses: Caesar salad, beef goulash with bread, spaghetti with black pepper, Sprite and ice cream (with a choice of nine flavors). Scattered among the Tex-Mex dishes lurk other oddities: beef brisket and noodle soup, ham and cheese sandwiches, popcorn, peanuts, Rice Krispies treats, and borscht. Has a Chinese menu in Dallas ever been so compromised?
Reasons for Mexican failure on the streets of Beijing aren't hard to decipher. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, the number of Mexicans (or Texans) available to hold the cuisine accountable is nil. In Dallas-Fort Worth, 80,000 Chinese are available to scrutinize the scattered flock of Chinese restaurants, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but unlike older American cities, the Chinese population here is far more dispersed. There is no bona fide Chinatown, the kind strung with dragons and fire crackers on Chinese New Year. Our Chinatowns are strip malls, like the drab gray strip near Abrams and Belt Line roads in Richardson where a Chinese Community Center, a Chinese tropical fish shop and the Chinese grocer share space with a string of Cantonese and Mandarin restaurants.