When Cleveland-native Andy Husney set out for China at age 20 to teach English, he never would have believed that he would live there for the next decade, or, for that matter, open a Mexican restaurant.
Husney initially came in 2012 for a one-year gig teaching English in Shenyang, located in China’s northeast Liaoning Province. But after that wrapped up, inspired by some friends and a desire to experience the culinary history of China, he made his way to Chengdu – recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a Creative City of Gastronomy, the capital of Sichuan province is also one of the capitals of Chinese cuisine. “The biggest reason I came to Sichuan is for the food here. This food blew my mind, the chiles and peppercorns, all these flavors I’ve never tried before,” Husney said.
Seven years after arriving in China, and six years after settling in Chengdu, Husney has become even more enamored with Sichuan cuisine and history, especially the rich tradition of hotpot. He even picked up Mandarin over the course of his culinary exploration. But throughout it all, he missed Mexican food from back home.
He shared this longing for Mexican food with Igor Voronkin, who by coincidence is also from Cleveland. The two met in Shenyang, though they had some mutual friends back in the States. Both being from Cleveland made it easy for them to hit it off, but they really bonded over their mutual love for Mexican food. This love ran so deep that the two friends eventually became business partners, opening Good Good Mexican Grill in Chengdu. Together, these two Midwestern lovers of tacos have helped bring Mexican food – and an appreciation for it – to this corner of Sichuan province, adding to the culinary richness of the city in the process.
To be sure, Mexican food had already been in this part of China before the entrance of Good Good. There are two locations of Peter’s Tex-Mex Grill in Chengdu, part of a chain with two more restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai. But Husney and Voronkin charted new territory for Mexican foodways in this region by starting a taco cart specializing in a few antojitos (“little cravings”), which later morphed into a taco bar, and then, finally, a full sit-down restaurant with a variety of items on the menu and, hands-down, the best flour tortillas in Sichuan province.
Despite the culinary richness of Chengdu, for Husney, Mexican food – albeit, the Americanized version of it – was something about the U.S. he longed for in China. “Growing up, if we wanted a burrito after school, we’d go to Chipotle. And that’s something we missed in China, getting a good burrito, and also tacos,” he said. His local group of friends in Chengdu also felt similar pangs of hungered nostalgia, and so they would get together to share food and company.
During these sessions, everyone would join together to make meals from scratch. “I had a grill, some people would get together at my house, and we would barbecue. We started branching out, eventually we made tortillas, and we started making tacos. There was no plan to start selling tacos. We made them to enjoy because we missed them, having fun together,” said Husney. “Then the idea about starting a taco cart started circulating. This never really went anywhere, until one day Igor and I said, let’s do it, and we started Good Good, just like that.”
Husney and Voronkin outfitted a taco cart onto a motorized tricycle in 2015, the beginnings of Good Good, and the vehicle for their Chinese taco dream. They spent an entire summer prepping the cart, drilling holes in it, painting it, wiring it up, adding lights and a grill, heat-proofing the bottom, and, finally, adding their logo. Their taco-trike ready to go that fall, Husney and Voronkin initially tried hawking their food at more traditional Chinese markets. “We set up next to the noodle guys, and honestly, we didn’t do well. We were really more like a novelty. So we decided: we’re mobile, we need to find somewhere better to sell our food. We bounced around in front of a couple bars, until one bar offered us a more permanent kind of deal. We built something else, more stationary, a full-on taco bar. We did that for a summer and realized we could make a go. When the chance came to rent a space, things fell into place.” These days, the taco cart is a memory; all that’s left is a large, vinyl photograph of the trike – a homage to their humble origins – in the rear of the restaurant.
“What Chinese and foreigners expect of Mexican food are two different things,” Husney said.
Good Good’s menu is Mexican American, with options including fat Chipotle-style burritos, churros, nachos, queso, quesadillas, and tacos on flour tortillas. For Husney, the menu has been a negotiation between his thoughts about “real” Mexican food and what his Chengdu customers find appealing. This is to say, Chipotle was not the standard by which Husney judged what he found as “real” Mexican food, nor the food he aspires to sell at Good Good.
Husney’s appreciation for Mexican foodways has broadened since his early forays to Chipotle in Cleveland. What we can describe as Husney’s taco literacy deepened as he became better acquainted with Mexican foodways, history, and people: he learned to read the cuisine to understand all those complexities. This began for him in another journey he took in his younger years, this time to California. “Right after high school a bunch of my friends went to college, but a buddy and I decided to travel instead, so we went to San Francisco. That’s where I had Mexican food, not the stuff I knew where I was from, but more what I think of as real Mexican food. That was the idea for our taco cart, real Mexican-style food, you know, tacos, with cilantro, onions, limes, and a couple salsas on the side, and always on corn tortillas. And we tested this with the locals, but they didn’t really care for that.”
To Husney’s chagrin, his Chinese customers were not taking to what he believed to be food that was more Mexican and less Americanized. Over time, however, Good Good experimented with the menu and arrived at its current form, something local with American- and Mexican-influenced touches. “What Chinese and foreigners expect of Mexican food are two different things,” Husney said. “Tacos are one thing Chinese people have heard of, but they are not sure how to [eat them]. They’ve asked me why the top is open, how to hold it, and also if they should wear gloves to eat them. So maybe not tacos are the favorites, and not even burritos really, but what does very well for us are our quesadillas. Chinese people see it more like pizza, in that way, [it’s] more familiar to foreign foods they know.”
Good Good struck a balance, offering a menu that appeals to both Chinese and foreigners seeking quality Mexican food that reminds them of home. Instead of corn tortillas, Husney and Voronkin realized their customers preferred flour, and also different, diverse toppings. The results are hybrid Chinese-American-Mexican items like Good Good’s pork tacos made with smoked shoulder marinated in chipotle salsa and grilled to crisp perfection, topped with cilantro, tangy chipotle mayo, shredded lettuce and crunchy corn kernels. And though these tacos are on flour tortillas, bear in mind these tortillas are freshly made with pork lard, just like the tasty ones made in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. And though some items are imported from Mexico, the chiles especially, most of Good Good’s produce, meat and flour are sourced locally. In this way, Good Good is a Chinese-American-Mexican restaurant that complements the culinary vibrancy of the city.
For Husney and Voronkin, the fact that the people of Chengdu have taken to their food has been a rewarding experience, one that has made them feel like they are part of the city. There have been exciting changes in the culinary landscape of Chengdu over the last decade, and Husney and Voronkin have been important players for building a community centered around international food in the city.
“The food in Chengdu has been changing. New places [are] popping up, doing good food by young, hip people starting amazing restaurants with styles of food from around the world,” Husney said.
This aspect of community was what brought Good Good together in the first place, in those early days of friends coming together to barbecue and share meals. For Husney, this has been why Chengdu became a place to build a dream. “Chengdu has a strong local, international community. I’m comfortable here,” he said. “I have friends, a community. China has become my second home.”