Finding a Little Piece of Home in Puerto Vallarta

As a Vietnamese American in Mexico, I’m finding comfort, dish by dish, in Asian restaurants.

Soleil Ho
Soleil Ho
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Rumor has it that my mom and I are two of the three Viets who call Puerto Vallarta home. I’ve never met the third; my mom just alludes to her mysteriously, like she’s some kind of cryptid. We don’t see many other Asians out in these streets of this coastal Mexican town. Even the Japanese grocery store is staffed entirely by native Mexicans, and its main clientele are the white Americans and Canadians who live here. Unlike most of the places I’ve lived in the US, I find it easier to blend in in Puerto Vallarta.

In the US, I situated myself by finding political and emotional shelter in my Vietnamese American refugee identity. After 29 years of soul-searching, I felt like my heritage was the decisive beam of a lighthouse. But in Mexico, my American privilege peeks out from under the “chino” umbrella that claims me. I have an American passport, a bank account in US dollars, and native fluency in English. This new segmentation of my identity is an unsettling feeling, but it reminds me of the refugees of my grandparents’ generation: doctors, soldiers, academics, fisherfolk, and teachers, all flattened by history into a dirty, pitiable mass of humanity.

Usually when I land in a new place, I look for fellow Asians at Asian restaurants so I can gulp in the language and smells that center me. But very few of the dozen Asian restaurants in Puerto Vallarta seem to be staffed with any Asian people. According to some people that I asked, a lot of these places are owned by Mexicans who worked at Asian restaurants in the US and came back to open their own places here. And until I began writing this essay, I didn’t pay much mind to that. After all, few of the top Asian restaurants in the city where I used to live—Portland, Oregon—are staffed by Asians either. When I dug deeper, asking locals and doing some research, I realized that there was a lot that I didn’t know.

Usually when I land in a new place, I look for fellow Asians at Asian restaurants so I can gulp in the language and smells that center me.

Up until a definitive moment in history, there were tens of thousands of Asian nationals in Mexico. Mainly concentrated on the west coast and in border states, the 40,000–120,000 Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and Malays that had lived in the country since the 16th century were servants, farmhands, opium dealers, railroad workers, merchants, and fishermen. Though the Asian population established itself, and members thrived as business owners and agricultural workers, the upheavals of the Mexican Revolution increased anti-Asian violence and acts of prejudice in states in the north where Asians—with Chinese people alone numbering 20,000—were most populous. In 1911, members of Pancho Villa’s army massacred more than 300 Chinese men in Torreón. Chinese-Mexican families were deported en masse, along with the Mexican wives who were popularly seen as race traitors and declared Chinese nationals by the new government. In the state of Sonora, which borders Arizona, law enforcement officers went so far as to push entire families through gaps in the border fence.

The extant Chinatowns of Mexico, Barrio Chino in Mexico City, and La Chinesca in Mexicali are shadows now. Since there aren’t many Chinese nationals left to maintain the fabric of those neighborhoods, they’ve been absorbed into their surroundings like temples veiled in moss. La Chinesca, which was mostly made up of tunnels dug between Chinese-owned businesses, is a tourist attraction. Though more than 300 Chinese restaurants scattered throughout Mexicali are going strong, they’re operated mostly by Chinese immigrants who came after the mass deportations cooled off.

There are more than a few Asian restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. The Chinese ones tend to loudly proclaim their genre with splashes of chinoiserie in their decor: dusty red lanterns flank the entrances, and slant-eyed moppets and pandas wave from the windows. Somehow, like lukewarm acquaintances encountered far from home, the same signifiers that I would recoil at in the United States feel comforting here, beckoning me with their familiar patterns and expressions. I guess even a racist caricature can seem friendly when you’re lonely.

photo by Soleil Ho

It’s so interesting to dine at one of these places and experience the Mexicanized versions of their respective cuisines. The food is even sweeter, stickier, and cheesier than what you’d find at an equivalent American Chinese joint. Think Panda Express’s wonderfully addictive orange chicken, but with the sugar content cranked to 11. In contrast to the American Chinese restaurant menus that are packed with dishes, tight variations on chop suey and sweet-and-sour sauce rule the day here. There are small ingredient swaps, too: jicama for water chestnuts, for example, is a really uncanny one. The difference between American Asian and Mexican Asian food reminds me of the classic example of split evolution, wherein two squirrels of the same species split between two islands become two distinct species over time as they individually adapt to their different environments. That is to say, in Mexican Asian restaurants, they put mayonnaise and sweet-and-sour sauce on everything.

At my mother’s house in Puerto Vallarta, I cook Asian dishes for her and her boyfriend every day: hot bowls of udon noodles, pork and shrimp pot stickers, soba dressed with sesame sauce, potato-and-cauliflower curry with pakoras on the side.

One of my favorite things that I see on Chinese restaurant menus here is rollos de queso: egg rolls filled with lava-hot cream cheese. Here, cream cheese is so commonplace at Asian restaurants that you often find it stocked next to Japanese and Chinese specialty ingredients at grocery stores. Sometimes the egg rolls are filled with shrimp as well, and of course they’re served with a side of sweet-and-sour sauce.

There are other dishes that I barely recognize at a glance, but if I squint, I can maybe make out their origin points. Yaket, for one. Imagine a battered and fried ball of long-grain rice, about five inches in circumference, draped with ropes of mayonnaise and swabbed with unagi sauce. Part of the ball is artfully caved in, revealing a gooey salad of shredded imitation crab, boiled octopus, sliced scallions, and cream cheese. When my mom and I first had yaket at a Japanese food truck in Puerto Vallarta, we exchanged looks of concern and then plunged in. It tasted a bit like a bizarro arancini; thus, it was pretty damn tasty.

Perhaps in a past life, yaket was yaki onigiri, a Japanese-style rice ball quickly seared on both sides and brushed with a soy-based glaze. A series of Mexican cooks, riffing on that classic izakaya dish, gradually added more and more garnishes and swapped the short-grain rice for cheaper and more available long-grain rice until it became something with greater street appeal.

I see the same story echoed in other dishes: thick noodles stir-fried with zucchini, chicken, and chipotle mayonnaise; sushi wrapped in a thin slice of sautéed plantain; coconut-caked shrimp tempura.

I first encountered cacahuates japoneses, or Japanese peanuts, at a snack-food vendor in Mexico City. I’d had them before mixed into snack packs at Korean delis, but on the streets of Mexico, the cracker-crusted peanuts were served alone or with hot sauce, usually Valentina, and lime. Eaten this way, it’s de rigueur to season them in the bag, then shake them up to distribute the sauce. It’s magnificent. During my first encounter with the nuts, I wondered briefly if they had made their way to Mexico via a Japanese envoy or merchant, dropping out of their satchels like seeds as they journeyed across North America. They were so well integrated into Mexican snack culture that I thought they must have been part of the scene for eons.

photo by Soliel Ho

Depending on your point of view, that’s kind of true. In 1945, Yoshigei Nakatani began selling the peanuts at a stand in Mexico City’s sprawling La Merced market. Years earlier, he had been forced to abandon his Mexican-born wife and child back in coastal Manzanillo, more than 500 miles away, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Mexican government reacted to the attack on its northern ally by cutting off diplomatic ties with Japan and ordering all Japanese immigrants living on the West Coast to either leave or move to cities located inland. Nakatani lost everything, but his growing peanut business helped him get back on his feet.

As I wrote this essay, I often snacked on Nakatani’s invention, albeit one of the many knock-off brands that came out after his. After the shocking crackle of the first bite, the peanut’s fatty softness blends nicely with the coating’s salty, off-teriyaki flavor. The combination of textures makes them truly addicting. I wonder how Nakatani felt in those early days when he plied his goods among the other cacahuateros at La Merced, earning warm validation from his regulars while thinking of his family waiting back in Manzanillo.

At my mother’s house in Puerto Vallarta, I cook Asian dishes for her and her boyfriend every day: hot bowls of udon noodles, pork and shrimp pot stickers, soba dressed with sesame sauce, potato-and-cauliflower curry with pakoras on the side. When I pace around the local fruit and vegetable markets, looking for something workable to replace the grated nagaimo in my okonomiyaki, I think about the endless ways in which people before me have perfected the art of making do.

At her house in the American Midwest, my grandmother serves me pho in white ceramic bowls bearing the John Deere logo when I visit her. So cheap, she often tells me with pride. The vessels remind me that, despite the glowing transcendence of the soup inside, the shiny wooden clock shaped like Vietnam hanging on the wall, the gentle collapse of noodles cut in half by steel scissors, the whispered cadence of historical drama dialogue coming from a far-off television, and the deep, deep brown of the eyes fixed on our grandmother’s hands, we are most definitely eating in America’s Heartland. They also remind me that home is always a process. That you build it bowl by bowl.