Never has a counteroffensive against ethnic cleansing disguised as border control tasted so delicious: on March 23, about 40 Costa Mesa entrepreneurs held a press conference outside Costa Mesa City Hall to lambaste Mayor Allan Mansoor's immigrant-harassing ways. Present was a who's who of the city's yummiest holes-in-the-wall: Pupusería San Sivar, Pasta Connection, Taco Mesa (but none of the hippies from the Gypsy Den, strangely). They followed in the steps of the young Latino activists who have protested every Friday for the past two months outside Skosh Monahan's, the bar owned by Costa Mesa Council Member Gary Monahan.
One of the restaurateurs at the City Hall rally was Mirna Burciaga, a soft-spoken woman with a flair for beautiful necklaces who runs El Chinaco, a Salvadoran eatery in the section of the West 19th Street square between Costa Mesa's Triangle Square and the working-class Westside. Burciaga immigrated to the city from her native El Salvador in 1981 and never left because "I fell in love with Costa Mesa." She married, had children, involved herself in the PTA and even joined the city's now-disbanded Human Relations Commission. "Many Latinos come from totalitarian countries, where we're told how to live," the fortysomething said. "So when I see something bad here, I rise up against it. It's my duty as a citizen."
It wasn't a surprise, then, that Burciaga has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of Mansoor, who seeks to turn Costa Mesa police officers into migra agents. "I'm for getting criminals—I'm against Mansoor's method," she said one recent Friday evening outside her 18-year-old restaurant. Burciaga and some friends were waiting for anti-immigrant activists to protest outside El Chinaco, as they had done the previous two Friday evenings. The protesters, waving signs painted with "El Chinaco Supports Criminals," have promised to do so until Burciaga shuts up or her business suffers. But the threats have had the opposite effect: El Chinaco bustles with customers like never before, many drawn by the restaurant's Minuteman special: a large chicken, cheese and bean taco for a buck.
"I say let's take a positive approach [to the Minutemen]," Burciaga said with a radiant smile and quiet laugh. "I offer them our welcome and good food."
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No anti-immigrant activists showed up that Friday—in their place were gabachos, Latinos and interracial couples greeting Burciaga by her first name as they walked inside her beautiful, spacious restaurant. Most have stopped in for years, drawn by Burciaga's pupusas, the griddle cakes ubiquitous to any Salvadoran restaurant. El Chinaco's pupusas, however, distinguish themselves from the competition by their size—almost the width of an outstretched palm and as thick as an iPod, each centimeter composed of sweet crisped masa, salty cheese and the stuffing of your choice (squash and shredded pork are the most popular). A plate of curtido (pickled, garlicked coleslaw) and an obsidian, hellish salsa accompany each order and should be spread on top of the pupusas.
Since Costa Mesa has a small Salvadoran community, the majority of El Chinaco's menu is Mexican—enchiladas, burritos and other fast food. But Burciaga does include the best of her patria's cuisine—an appetizer of fried yucca and pork that shines like a doorknob and tastes like crunchy sugar, plump tamales and empanadas, and a filling order of plátano frito: logs of fried plantain paired with sweet refried beans and a chilled thimble of cream. On ice are Salvadoran and Mexican beers and three flavors of Cuzcatlan Kolashampan, the creamy soda as essential to Salvadoran identity as the pupusa.
The threat of future Minutemen boycotts doesn't faze Burciaga, who plans to run against Mansoor this fall for a Costa Mesa City Council seat. "Although I might be from El Salvador, I'm still American. I closed one door to open another," Burciaga said as she finally tired of waiting for the Minutemen and entered the warmth of her restaurant. A giant American flag partially covered El Chinaco's marquee. More people streamed in and ordered pupusas. "They don't intimidate me—I'm not that easy to intimidate."
EL CHINACO, 560 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 722-8632. OPEN DAILY, 8 A.M.-10 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$25, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.