If you are craving Mexican food, Mexicali is the place to visit for a casual meal. Lee Quang’s customers fondly refer to him as Señor Lee, and he is Dunbar’s purveyor of Californian style Mexican food.
Mexicali has been located in Dunbar for 12 years. Prior to that it was situated on Arbutus Street for 12 years before being destroyed by a fire. Quang was determined to find another West Side location to keep his loyal customers happy and knew he had hit the jackpot when he found Mexicali’s current home.
Quang arrived in Canada from Vietnam in 1988. He learned the art of cooking Mexican food when he worked in the kitchen at Las Margaritas restaurant on West 4th Avenue. This style of cooking is far from his native Vietnamese cuisine but he learned on the job. He has words of praise for the original owners of Las Margaritas who not only trained him but also were extremely supportive when he ventured out on his own. He says, “They became like family and taught me a lot.”
The small restaurant’s décor spotlights Mexicali’s logo (a cartoon chili pepper donning a sombrero) painted on the back wall. In addition, a large mural wraps around the restaurant to create the atmosphere of being on a tropical beach at sunset with palm trees swaying in the warm breeze. Background music, Tejano style, plays over the sound system and gets toes tapping as you dine.
Mexicali is known for its large portions and very reasonable prices.
What is Quang’s secret? Customers order their meal at the counter, pay, and the food is delivered to the table. There are three kitchen staff, including Quang who must have a carbon copy of himself, because he is also out on the floor serving; it is almost as if he is a one-man show and he says this assists in keeping his costs down. Remarkably, he makes it look easy. He smiles and agrees but humbly adds that it is thanks to many of his regular customers who know the menu inside out, which simplifies his job.
He mentions that the community is very loyal, from families with young children to teenagers and adults; people are drawn to the tasty and filling meals. Like clockwork, after he mentions the support of students, a troop of St. George’s students files in to place their lunchtime order before heading back to class.
What do they keep coming back for? Diners are drawn to his quality ingredients and recipes, which are made as low fat as possible. While Mexican food can be spicy, Mexicali’s dishes are made to be on the mild side, although if you request spicy they are happy to turn up the heat!
A number of dietary requirements can be accommodated, from vegetarian to gluten free, nut free, low sodium and low fat. MSG is not found in any of the kitchen’s products and the cooks avoid preservatives to their greatest ability.
Freshness is the name of the game at Mexicali. Quang likes to shop locally and purchases much of his produce at Dunbar Produce. He points out the local merchants are his friends.
The menu includes quesadillas and other snacks (tacos, Redondo rollups) and appetizers (nachos, guacamole, chips and salsa, soups and salads). Entrees feature burritos, chile relleno, enchiladas, tamales, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), chile con carne and vegetarian chili.
Menu standouts are the lunchtime specials, which offer unbelievable value. Quang indicates the teenage crowd is drawn to these specials because they include Mexi fries and a beverage. A favourite is the beef Redondo rollup – a grilled tortilla filled with ground beef, spices, lettuce, cheese, salsa and sour cream. The other crowd-pleasing specials are the soft or crunchy (your choice) beef tacos and the enchilada with rice and a choice of refried or black beans.
Don’t forget to try the housemade salsa, Quang is extremely proud of it.
Mexicali is not a licensed restaurant therefore expect a virgin margarita made with pure fruits and juices. The “slighty slushy Mexican limonada” is another popular beverage.
This busy restaurant owner has a young family (two daughters), works seven days a week and rarely takes holidays, yet he keeps smiling. He loves what he does for a living and it shows.
What is the most rewarding part of owning and operating his business? Quang is quick to point out it is his customers. He says, “They are very nice and supportive.” He mentions that his customers come from all over to dine at his establishment and while some have moved away from the area they return for a meal at Mexicali, which he appreciates.
Running a restaurant is not an easy job. The hours are long; the rising cost of food makes keeping menu prices affordable a challenge and competition can be fierce. Quang has obviously found the magic formula – he is still smiling and relaxed after 24 years of running his own business!
Bring in this Dunbar Life article between November 15 through January 15 (offer valid from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m.) and receive a 20% discount on dine in orders.
4424 Dunbar Street
Vancouver BC V6S 2G5