To read this article in Spanish, click here.
West Valley City • Among the red walls, paper dragons, money trees, decorative fans and posters with Chinese messages, the fast beats of a merengue playlist echoes.
Although everything in Changs Food points out that it’s a Chinese establishment, the phone is answered in Spanish with a Venezuelan accent. And a trilingual front sign gives away the multicultural blend.
Yes, it’s a Chinese restaurant in West Valley City, but it also emulates Chinese restaurants in Venezuela, where a wave of Chinese immigrants started to arrive in the 19th century and thrived in the culinary field. Venezuelans then acquired a taste for Cantonese cuisine, and the Chinese adapted some of the dishes with other ingredients, creating a new gastronomical genre: Chinese-Venezuelan food.
Brothers Johnson and Jimmy Chang, the owners, move constantly from the kitchen to the dining room. They interrupt any task or conversation to greet in Spanish any customer who enters. They have done this for more than 30 years — in Venezuela and the United States.
“We don’t sell the original Chinese food,” Johnson said. “We have a fusion that people like.”
The rice is different. The seasoning is stronger. And some ingredients offer a varied taste from those of the original recipes.
They learned from their father
Johnson and Jimmy Chang are personifications of the Chinese-Venezuelan mix of cultures themselves. Their father, Ramon Chang, moved from Canton to Maracay, a large city in Venezuela, when he was about 18 years old.
“Our dad is Chinese and our mom is from Venezuela. That’s the first fusion,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We grew up in both cultures.”
From a young age, they started helping at their parents’ restaurant in Venezuela, where they learned how to run a food establishment. Even more important: They consumed every morsel about how to cook the way their father learned in China.
“Chinese who went to Peru made chaufa [fried rice with dark soy sauce, bell peppers, scallions, hot dogs and meat or seafood] and seafood fusions,” Johnson said. “Our ancestors did that with Venezuelan flavors.”
In Venezuela, Chinese food remains one of the most popular takeout options. High schoolers, working folks and families often select large plates of fried rice with smoked ham, boiled chicken or beef and shrimp, chives and sprouted beans to share. Venezuelans often order lumpias (spring rolls filled with cabbage, ham and carrots), sweet-and-sour chicken, salt and pepper ribs and chop suey (stir-fried cabbage with carrots, peppers, onions and a choice of meat).
Bottom line: It’s a cheap way to eat out.
Chop suey is a mainstay in Venezuelan-Chinese fusion.
“Although it was born in the US, it was popularized in Venezuela,” Johnson said. “You can’t find it easily anywhere else with cabbage, onions, peppers and carrots.”
“We first learned to make some rice, and then we belonged to the kitchen,” said Jimmy. “The Chinese — we work every day. It’s part of our culture.”
How the brothers got to Utah
The Changs had different restaurants around their native Maracay, but they had to migrate amid the political and social upheavals in Venezuela. Those diners are now closed.
After a few years in Miami — with its sizable Venezuelan population and a few Chinese-Venezuelan food options — they moved to Utah four years ago, scouting for job opportunities.
“I had never been to Utah,” said Jimmy. “I had only heard about Utah because of the Utah Jazz.”
In the Beehive State, the Changs worked maintenance jobs for some months before returning to their restaurant roots and keeping their father’s legacy alive.
They started by cooking Chinese-Venezuelan food at home for pickup and promoted it on social media six months before opening Changs Food — becoming the first to bring this fusion to a brick-and-mortar restaurant here in August 2021.
Even at the height of the pandemic, the Chang brothers found a receptive public from the beginning. “It wasn’t hard because we are the first ones to do this Chinese-Venezuelan fusion,” Johnson said. “People were waiting for us.”
In the 27 years Fidel Arrieta has lived in Utah, he had never been to a Chinese restaurant with dishes that tasted like those in his native Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second most-populous city.
Until I discovered Changs.
“We love it, and it reminds us of when we lived in Venezuela and had Chinese food,” Arrieta said in Spanish. “It brings us memories, and we think they do it very well.”
Although he and his family live 30 minutes away on the east side of Salt Lake City, they order or visit the restaurant frequently to get fried rice, chow mein and seafood on a hot plate.
“Having a restaurant from a family who already had a restaurant in Venezuela is very weird,” he said. “It’s a big privilege for everyone.”
The restaurant doesn’t just cater to Venezuelans, of course. Diners of different nationalities — many are Colombians — also frequent Changs to find that close-to-home taste of Chinese food.
Eva Noble, a graphic designer who recently relocated to West Valley City from Midvale, visited the restaurant knowing with her boyfriend on a weekend without about the Venezuelan fusion.
“Most of it looks Chinese, but the entire family that came out to greet me was Venezuelan, and they were mostly Spanish-speaking,” Noble said. “I’d never heard of anything like it. It was awesome.”
She was also surprised by the hefty portions and how some changes made a big difference in traditional dishes.
“I’m usually not really into fried rice because I feel like once you’ve had one, you’ve had them all,” she said. “Not the case here. There were huge pieces of ham and full shrimp. It was crispy, and there was a lot of flavor.”
In the dining room, coffee is free and conversations with the families are ongoing. On the first Sunday of the month, the restaurant hands out Venezuelan beef soup as a way to give back to their loyal patrons.
Although the food isn’t authentic Chinese, it shapes part of the community’s story and serves a new wave of immigrants hungering for hints of home.
“There are people who come here and say they haven’t had Chinese-Venezuelan food in 20 years.” Jimmy said. “For me, that’s satisfying.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her dela writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.