This restaurant brings a touch of Venezuela — and China — to Utah

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town in the west valley • Between the red walls, paper kites, money trees, decorative fans and posters with Chinese messages, the fast beats of a merengue playlist echo.

Although everything in Changs Food indicates that it is a Chinese eatery, the phone is answered in Spanish with a Venezuelan accent. And a trilingual front sign reveals the multicultural mix.

Yes, it’s a Chinese restaurant in West Valley City, but it also emulates Chinese restaurants in Venezuela, where a wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the 19th century and thrived in the culinary field. Venezuelans then developed a taste for Cantonese cuisine, and the Chinese adapted some of the dishes with different ingredients, creating a new gastronomic genre: Sino-Venezuelan food.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A colorful back room greets customers at Changs Food, which serves Venezuelan-style Chinese fusion cuisine. Thursday, May 27, 2022.

Brothers Johnson and Jimmy Chang, the owners, are constantly moving from the kitchen to the dining room. They interrupt each task or conversation to greet in Spanish each customer who enters. They have been doing this for more than 30 years – in Venezuela and the United States.

“We don’t sell authentic Chinese food,” Johnson said. “We have a merger that people like.”

The rice is different. The spice is stronger. And some ingredients offer a different taste than the original recipes.

They learned from their father

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chinese-Venezuelan immigrants Jimmy Chang (left) and his brother Johnson prepare Venezuelan-style Chinese food at their Changs Food restaurant in West Valley City on Thursday, May 27, 2022.

Johnson and Jimmy Chang are themselves personifications of the Sino-Venezuelan cultural mix. Her father, Ramon Chang, moved from Canton to Maracay, a large city in Venezuela, when he was about 18 years old.

“Our father is Chinese and our mother is from Venezuela. It’s the first merger,” Johnson said, laughing. “We grew up in both cultures.”

From a young age, they helped out at their parents’ restaurant in Venezuela, where they learned how to run a grocery store. More importantly, they consumed every bite of how to cook like their father taught in China.

“Chinese who went to Peru did chaufa [fried rice with dark soy sauce, bell peppers, scallions, hot dogs and meat or seafood] and seafood fusions,” Johnson said. “Our ancestors did this with Venezuelan flavors.”

In Venezuela, Chinese food remains one of the most popular take-out options. Students, workers, and families often choose large plates of fried rice topped with smoked ham, boiled chicken or beef, and shrimp, chives, and sprouted beans to share. Venezuelans often order lumpias (spring rolls stuffed with cabbage, ham, and carrots), sweet and sour chicken, salt and pepper ribs, and chop suey (sautéed cabbage with carrots, peppers, onions, and an assortment of meats).

Conclusion: It’s a cheap way to eat out.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fried rice with shrimp and ham are featured at Changs Food, which serves Venezuelan-style Chinese fusion cuisine. Thursday, May 27, 2022.

Chop Suey is a mainstay of Venezuelan-Chinese fusion.

“Even though that was born in the US, it became popular in Venezuela,” Johnson said. “You don’t find it that easy anywhere else in cabbage, onions, peppers and carrots.”

“We learned how to make rice first, and then we belonged in the kitchen,” Jimmy said. “The Chinese – we work every day. It’s part of our culture.”

How the brothers came to Utah

The Changs had various restaurants in their native Maracay, but they were forced to migrate amid the political and social upheavals in Venezuela. These restaurants are now closed.

After a few years in Miami — with its sizable Venezuelan population and some Sino-Venezuelan dining options — they relocated to Utah four years ago to look for job opportunities.

“I’ve never been to Utah,” Jimmy said. “I had only heard of Utah because of the Utah Jazz.”

In the Beehive State, the Changs worked on maintenance for a few months before returning to their restaurant roots and keeping their father’s legacy alive.

They started cooking Chinese-Venezuelan food for pickup at home and promoted it on social media six months before Changs Food opened — becoming the first to bring that fusion to a brick-and-mortar restaurant here in August 2021.

Even at the height of the pandemic, the Chang brothers found a receptive audience right from the start. “It wasn’t difficult because we’re the first to do this Sino-Venezuelan merger,” Johnson said. “People have been waiting for us”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jimmy Chang serves an order of beef tenderloin on a hot platter to stimulate the senses at Chang’s Food in West Valley City, where he and his brother serve Venezuelan-style Chinese fusion food. Thursday, May 27, 2022.

In the 27 years that Fidel Arrieta has lived in Utah, he has never been to a Chinese restaurant with dishes that tasted like those in his native Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city.

Until he discovered Changs.

“We love it and it reminds us of the time 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 often order in or visit the restaurant for fried rice, chow mein, and seafood on a hot platter.

“Having a restaurant from a family that already had a restaurant in Venezuela is very strange,” he said. “It’s a great privilege for everyone.”

Of course, the restaurant is not only aimed at Venezuelans. Diners of various nationalities – many are Colombian – also frequent Changs for a taste of local Chinese cuisine.

Eva Noble, a graphic designer who recently relocated to West Valley City from Midvale, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend over a weekend without knowing anything about Venezuelan fusion.

“Most of it looks Chinese, but all the family that came out to greet me was Venezuelan and they mainly spoke Spanish,” Noble said. “I had never heard of anything like this. It was fantastic.”

She was also surprised by the hefty portions and how a few tweaks to traditional dishes made a big difference.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steam rises from a recently served plate of beef tenderloin on a hot plate at Changs Food in West Valley City on Thursday, May 27, 2022.

“I’m not usually really into fried rice because I feel like once you eat one, you have them all,” she said. “That is not the case here. There were huge chunks of ham and full prawns. It was crispy and had a lot of flavor.”

In the dining room there is free coffee and conversations with families are ongoing. On the first Sunday of the month, the restaurant hands out Venezuelan beef soup to give back to its loyal patrons.

While the food isn’t authentically Chinese, it shapes part of the community’s history and serves a new wave of immigrants hungry for a taste of home.

“There are people who come here and say they haven’t had Sino-Venezuelan food in 20 years,” Jimmy said. “It’s satisfying for me.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this; Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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