When a fire started in the back room of China’s Alley in August 2011, it threatened to take away what the Gonzalez family had spent three generations building. But like its namesake grandmother who stood the test of time to build an iconic Lindsay location, one stroke of bad luck can’t undo 70 years of goodwill.
Owner Ruben Gonzalez, the grandson of founder Nofie “China” Garcia, reopened the Mexican restaurant across from Sweet Brier Plaza in Lindsay on May 10. Ruben said the restaurant was stripped down to just four brick walls as the roof, carpet, kitchen, booths, bar, tables and chairs had to be removed due to smoke damage. During the rebuild, China’s opened a temporary location just around the corner at 122 E. Honolulu St. in Lindsay
“I want people to know we are back where we belong,” Ruben said. “Back in the same restaurant my grandmother opened 70 years ago.”
On June 1, China’s Alley will celebrate its 70th anniversary and Grand Re-Opening. Owner Ruben Gonzalez, the grandson of founder “China” Garcia, said the celebration will include a Mariachi trio called “Cuatros” from 6-8 p.m., a DJ and live band from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and a slide show of the nearly two-year restoration effort following the fire, presented by Service by Benevento.
“When the kids off to college come back this summer they will have a familiar place to eat with friends,” Ruben said. “Every holiday, summer or special event people always come back to Lindsay and they remember the food.”
Home to Heart
What started as a home-based business making sack lunches for farm labor foreman and workers has grown into a Valley-wide icon of authentic Mexican meals.
Ruben said his grandmother started by making burritos and tacos for farmworkers and foreman in the 1930s. Her sack lunches were eaten by some of the founding families in Lindsay such as the Keeleys and Wollenmans. Handmade tortillas, flip fried Mexican chicken and well balanced yet flavorful rice and beans quickly made a name for the twenty-something mother and cook.
Nofie’s doctor liked her food so much she offered to buy her a building so that she could get her business out of her kitchen and into a restaurant. With all of her hardwork and home made Mexican cooking, it didn’t take Nofie too long to begin repaying the doctor for the generous offer. But the doctor had one more question for Nofie.
“The doctor asked, ‘what are you going to call it?’” Ruben recalls the story told by his grandmother.
“I have the perfect name, ‘China’s Alley,’” Ruben said his grandmother replied.
“China [pronounced chee-nuh] is a nickname for a Mexican girl with curly, kinky hair,” Ruben explained. “She was called that all through school and the original entrance was off the alley, so it covered everything.”
China’s opened in 1943 at the same location where it exists today, 170 N. Sweet Brier Ave. in Lindsay.
Ruben’s first memories are old photographs of China bathing him in a concrete sink in the back room of the restaurant in 1963 as an infant. As a young boy, Ruben and his friends would dance for money on the bar to popular Mariachi tunes.
“My grandmother used to always tell me, ‘I was making money off you before you knew it.’”
In elementary school, the 50-year-old remembers walking to Catechism with his friends across town. As the halfway point, China’s was a natural rest stop to get a bite to eat. He said he and his friends would grab a stick of butter in one hand, catch tortillas coming off the conveyer belt in the other, and end up with a full stomach and a nub of butter after seven or eight tortillas.
“I grew up with my grandmother and in this restaurant,” he said. “This is what I know.”
Fresh tortillas were just part of the appeal of China’s cooking. Ruben said his grandmother made one-of-a-kind tacos, spectacular chile relleno and authentic Mexican chicken that takes 45 minutes to prepare properly.
“To this day, people call ahead and preorder the chicken,” Ruben said. “They know how long it takes but they know it’s well worth the wait.”
In 1965, China’s daughter Becky and husband Ted took over the business from Nofie. Ruben said his mother was a constant marketer, always looking for ways to promote their business. Just as China’s photo is framed near the entrance, Becky’s is framed above the archway into the extra dining room. The room is part of an expansion she and Ted oversaw in 1984 before her passing in1988. As for Ted, he makes a mean margarita and now works for his son as the bartender.
“He will be here making his famous margaritas for our 70th anniversary,” Ruben said. “I wish mom could have been here to see it.”
Ruben and his wife Carol took over the business in 1993. Carol spent many hours cooking with China and learning how to cook authentic Mexican food before the matriarch passed away. When the restaurant was closed on Tuesdays, Nofie would invite the entire family over for breakfast just to keep the family close around the table. Before her passing in 2001, Ruben said Nofie was able to see her grandson open their first satellite location at 1377 W. Henderson in Porterville in 2000.
“Even at 90 years old she could still sip on a margarita, but I had to get her home and put her in bed,” Ruben said. “She knew how to live life to the fullest. At one point they took her driver’s license away, but she still drove. She always wanted to be active.”
Carol remembers Nofie as one of the most kind and compassionate souls she had ever met. She remembers seeing the elderly businesswoman waive off change from children who came up short on the bill. Sometimes, she would just feed give tacos to children who looked hungry, or a tortilla to a homeless person trying to get through the day. She even extended the courtesy to her competitors as a multitude of Mexican restaurants moved into town.
“She always said, ‘Never say anything bad about anyone. Just wish them luck,’” Carol said. “It is difficult to do that sometimes but she was right.”
Carol said there were several times where at the Porterville location when people would come in looking for some spare food.
“I could feel her presence and she was watching to see what I would do,” Carol said. “I remember her saying, ‘We make money every day. When people need to eat, feed them. When you need to pay bills, pay the bills.’ She never worried about anything. You don’t meet a lot of people like that.”
China’s is a fourth-generation Gonzalez family business with Ruben’s daughters running both the Lindsay and Porterville locations. Valerie manages the Lindsay site while Veronica and Erika manage the Porterville location.
Today China’s employs 32 people between the two locations in Lindsay and Porterville. Ruben said people come from all over the Valley to taste their food, made with the same recipe his grandmother perfected more than 70 years ago. Each time someone sits down at China’s, they will notice the grandmother’s photo on the menu. And each time they taste her delicious recipes they will be reminded of what a little Mexican lady can do with a stove and determination.
“She is gone but not forgotten,” Ruben said. “As long as we make food the way she made it and keep that photo on the menu, she will always be here with us.”