Watching Santos Choa cook is like watching an Olympic athlete compete. The lithe, slender Guatemalan is constantly moving, checking the grill, slicing fresh vegetables, shaking the baskets in the fryer.
Judging from the crowd of customers lined up for takeout orders, this quick but relaxed young man is good at his trade.
Every once in a while, Choa breaks his rhythm to doublecheck an order with the cashier behind the faded blue front counter. It’s understandable. Choa grew up on tortillas and frijoles, not the fare he is cooking: such Chinese dishes as Moo Goo Gai Pan and Zou Zongtang Ji (better known as General Tso Chicken).
In yet another chapter of America’s border-bending food history, Choa has worked to become a cook at Cottage Express, a popular Chinese takeout restaurant on North Tryon Street.
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Choa started four years ago, hired to help chopping, cleaning and doing other simple tasks. But he likes cooking and started watching the cooks.
Little by little, he mastered each dish. His favorite dish to prepare? “Happy Family,” a combination of meats, poultry and seafood sautéed with broccoli and served with a classic Chinese brown sauce.
A little of everything
Shiwu Zheng, working the counter during Choa’s afternoon shift, said Cottage Express is part of a small local chain owned by the Zheng family, originally from Fuzhou in Southern China. Speedy service and long hours, seven days a week, have added up to a winning combination in University City.
Zheng is a picture of a multi-tasking 20-something son engaged in the family business, answering two phones at once while using his smartphone to translate Chinese characters into English.
One saying on the wall above the cash register, beside slightly faded photos of menu items such as Buddha’s Delight and Moo Shu Pork, means “May treasure come to this business.”
Anna Torres, whose family is from Jalisco, Mexico, and Alejandra Saldana, who grew up in Houston, also work the cash register and phones.
So which language do they all use?
“A little English, a little Spanish, a little Mandarin,” Zheng said. “Everybody learns a little of everything.”
Alejandra, a rising senior at Garinger High School, believes connections at Cottage Express go deeper than food.
“I was born in Houston, and I’ve been here my whole life,” Alejandra said. “Sure, we have cultural differences and different languages at Cottage Express, but we have a lot in common. We come from different places, our families immigrated here, so in that way we’re really working with people similar to us.”
Although she wants to attend college and is interested in a career in criminal justice, Alejandra said she also works while attending high school and has already been employed for a couple of years.
“People ask, ’Why should you work?’ and I say, ’Of course I should work!’ ”
Future fusion cuisine?
What about the potential for cultural bridges on the dinner plate?
In spite of its familiar menu of sweet-and-sour chicken, chop suey and egg foo young, is culturally diverse Cottage Express actually a stealth test kitchen for the next fusion cuisine?
Cottage Express has added American fare to its menu, including burgers, onion rings and hot wings. And the staff has translated a page of the menu into Spanish (General Tso Chicken is “Pollo de General”).
Is this where quesadillas and chopsticks meet up, hang out and make beautiful music together?
For the time being, the answer is “Not yet.…”
Alejandra sees a common factor to build on.
“The key is spiciness. In both Latino and Chinese food, people know what peppers are, what jalapeños are.”
Zheng is more cautious. For him, the important thing is that Cottage Express appeals to many people, and to the widest possible American palate.
Still, there’s potential here. With cooks from Guatemala and China working side-by-side back in the Cottage Express kitchen, anything can happen. Sooner or later, an ingredient will run out, or run short, and they’ll need to improvise. Who knows what they might come up with, communicating through languages of taste and mime when spoken language falls short?
Welcome to America in the 21st century. As always, we are a nation of immigrants, and our constantly evolving identity is reflected on our dinner plates.