Latinos in Taiwan Part 1: Eddy’s Cantina
Posted September 10, 2009 12:44 am (about 2180 days ago)
In my past visits to Taiwan I’ve tried out Mexican restaurants, salsa nights, and even trying to track down a guy by the name of DJ Chicano. I had some good conversations with Taiwanese locals who told me about Mexicans living in Taiwan, including their own spouses at times, but for a number of reasons I was just never able to connect with anyone beyond a handshake or two. However, in recent months I became aware of not one, but TWO restaurants in Taipei owned by actual Mexicans, as well as a Bolivian-owned one in Kaoshiung. This was unlike the other restaurants I had sampled, which were not Mexican owned. Furthermore, I came across a new organization called Latinos Taiwan. This new information proved to be the final push I needed to book a flight home ASAP!
Due to the wonders of the internet I was able to contact both restaurant owners and the founder of Latinos Taiwan. Unfortunately, time was limited and I was only able to have a proper conversation with Eddy, of Eddy’s Cantina, and even that was too short. Nonetheless, all three were friendly and open and I will be back to learn more about the Latino Taiwanese community. There is so much to explore: the experience of Latinas, the experience of their children, visa and language issues, the role of race (having stronger African or indigenous features versus more European)—to name a few. At any rate, here’s part one of this most recent visit.
Click here for more info on Taiwan
Ed Gonzalez, the founder and owner of Eddy’s Cantina is actually a Canadian-Mexican, who grew up in Kitimat, British Colombia, but whose parents are from Jalisco, Mexico. I later wondered if growing up speaking English, surrounded by English speakers, made the transition to Taiwan easier as there are a number of foreigners from English-speaking countries, including Canada. A number of topics came up, but no matter what we talked about, the conversation invariably came back to food. This was fine as I had no formal questions and we had a casual conversation, which included my friend Rob Hsu, another foodie.
Without a doubt, there are some challenges to cooking good Mexican food, particularly at a restaurant scale. Regarding ingredients, Ed said that it was hard to get things such as chipotle, although he was always surprised by what a local vegetable vendor could get. “My wife, who’s Taiwanese, will go to him with a list and a few days later he’ll have it. I have no idea where he gets it from!”
He took great pride in the fact that everything is freshly made, except the tortilla chips, which I found to be quite good. Apparently there’s a locally-owned tortilla company. “We were at a trade show and saw these Taiwanese guys wearing sombreros so we had to check it out. We ended up ordering some products from them and they supply some of the other places that serve Mexican or pseudo-Mexican food, including bars.” After some experimentation Ed decided to stick with making home-made tortillas. Getting the right grains of rice has also been challenging, so it’s definitely been a lesson in creativity.
Before opening up the restaurant Ed and his wife Jo started with a stall at a local night market. Things started out small and people were confused. “There a lot of places serving Indian food and people thought that’s what we were. We offered samples and some people said they didn’t like Indian food so we had to clear that up.” Things really picked up after Eddy posted on the forumosa discussion board. Foreigners began showing up in droves, which attracted the attention of locals.
The thread regarding Eddy’s has grown over 20 pages long and Ed tries to respond to all comments, both good and bad. It’s proven to be an invaluable way to gain feedback, in addition to personal conversations, as it’s a challenge to appeal to the local palate, as well as foreigners who may have a more sophisticated relationship with Mexican food. “We get people coming in who think Taco Bell is authentic Mexican food, sometimes American companies reserve the entire place, and other times the place is packed and all you hear is Spanish being spoken!” Eddy’s is so popular that it also offers delivery service to anywhere on the island, via the numerous 7-11 stores.
Of course, I thought it was funny that this Mexican-owned restaurant was filled with Asian workers as it’s the exact opposite in the Unite States. Unlike Mexicans, who apparently can cook anything (my favorite soul-food and West African spots in Oakland have Mexican cooks!), I have to say that I’ve only met one Taiwanese who can throw down with Mexican food (incidentally, we’re related and she lives just outside of Gary, Indiana). Without me even having to say it, Ed raised this point. “The quality can suffer when some of the trainees cook. I can only teach them so much as they don’t have a reference point. Whenever I cook I always sample a bit to check the seasoning.” During our short visit I didn’t get to try a whole lot of dishes, but the quality of what I had varied from average to good. I will have to eat more to form a proper opinion in that regard, but I'll definitely be back!
So, what brought Ed to Taiwan? From a business standpoint, places like California and Arizona hardly need more burritos, but Taiwan’s not exactly brimming with Mesoamericans, so outside of business, what’s life like? Beyond food, another of Ed’s passions is soccer and he runs the Gonzalez Soccer Academy for youth, which includes three teams and several affiliates. While in Asia in 2002 for World Cup related activities, which were being held in South Korea and Japan, Ed decided to relocate. “Korea and Japan get cold and I got enough of that in Canada. Taiwan has many similarities to Mexico, including the weather and the night markets.” After spending some time teaching English and getting himself settled in, including getting married, Ed and his wife decided to start their own business. While there wasn’t much a Latino community to speak of, beyond students, Ed’s family has visited and he goes back to Canada and Mexico from time to time. “After being here so long, you just take things for granted. Like, my brother came out and one time he just stopped in his tracks as we were walking and said ‘what’s that?’ To me it was just a temple and there are so many that I don’t even notice, but I was reminded that not everyone gets to see stuff like this.”
Alas, it was time to go as a typhoon was making its way towards us, but Ed says he plans on sticking around for a bit. I hope so as I need to get back for some of that horchata and continue our discussion!
Click here for more info on this trip.