If only signs could talk. Alas, the faded “chop suey” sign at the Republic Café at 37 Soledad St. is a silent icon of the vibrant enclave Salinas Chinatown once was.
But come April 25, the second annual Asian Festival will breathe new life into Chinatown, providing a peek into the past and a preview of plans for the area as part of the ongoing Chinatown Revitalization Project. Fun and festivities will be scattered throughout the neighborhood; food will be offered at the Salinas Confucius Temple, the Buddhist Temple of Salinas and the Filipino Cultural Center. The three venues will host a smorgasbord of ethnic culinary delights as well as taiko drumming, folk dances and martial arts demonstrations.
Did I mention food? From sweet and sour chicken to almond cookies, sushi rolls to teriyaki rice bowls, chicken adobo to chow mein-like pancit, there will be edible delights galore.
Many of the festival organizers are descendants of the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino men and women who lived and worked in the Chinatown area, which dates back to 1872.
The Chinese were the first to arrive in Salinas and, in 1869, 10 Chinese were counted among Salinas’ population of 600. The majority came as farm and field laborers, reclaiming and clearing land, and eventually growing a variety of crops including wheat,mustard greens, potatoes and strawberries. Merchants soon followed, opening general stores to cater to the emerging market. At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants started flocking to Salinas and formed an adjacent Japantown along East Lake Street. When the Filipinos arrived in the 1920s, they congregated in this vicinity as well.
As the population swelled over the next few decades, a slew of restaurants, hotels, pool halls and tailor shops opened to meet demand. The Republic Café was one of them. Wallace Ahtye’s parents ran the restaurant for 50 years and he remembers the constant stream of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino customers. In its heyday, the restaurant was the go-to site for wedding banquets and tong (Chinese association) dinners. It ceased operations in 1988; however, plans are underway to convert the building into a museum.
The restaurants in Chinatown may have closed, but be prepared to dig into some fabulous food. For a partial preview of what to expect, Orly Jimenez, one of the festival organizers, invited me to the Filipino Cultural Center at Calle Cebu for a taste test. Emilio M. Lagasca, vice president of the center, and his wife Artemia are also present to welcome me.
With a grand sweep of her arm, the apron-clad Artemia introduces the various herbs, spices and sauces neatly laid out in front of her. Soy sauce, bay leaves, black pepper and garlic are add-ons that can be altered to taste or family recipe. But vinegar makes adobo adobo.
Artemisia tips each and every ingredient into a bowl brimming with pinkish meat, and mixes everything together. Cooking adobo is easy, as Artemia demonstrates. Set it on the stove for about an hour, stir once in awhile, and make sure there’s sufficient liquid in the pot.
In the Philippines and among Filipino-Americans, adobo is a very common dish usually served family style in a big bowl, he says. “It’s served with rice and lumpia [spring rolls], and you always have it at big parties like weddings, anniversaries and birthdays.” Adobo can be made with pork and/or chicken, preferably bone-in dark meat.
Sometimes called the Philippines’ national dish, it’s so prevalent in Filipino culture that a cable TV program on TFC (The Filipino Channel) – Adobo Nation – is named after it. But even though adobo is a staple in Filipino homes, adobo is not well known outside the community. Its deliciousness make that a pity.
So here’s the point: Seize this rare opportunity to sample some ethnic home cooking from three distinct yet so intertwined cultures. Besides, Artemisia has spent the last two weeks wrapping 1,000 lumpias on her own. Do you really want to disappoint her by not showing up?
THE ASIAN FESTIVAL takes place 11am-4pm Saturday, April 25, in Chinatown (California Street between East Lake and Market Way), Salinas. Free admission. 384-6961.