Chop Chuy

We pointed out a few weeks ago that you'll not only find Mexicans behind the seafood counter at 99 Ranch Market at the Chinese Cultural Center, but that some days most of the customers in the Asian grocery store are speaking Spanish too.

Turns out it's just one of many examples of how different ethnic groups are coming together in interesting ways in the Valley. But for one of the goofiest combos, it's hard to overlook Chino Bandido Takee-Outee, the odd but tasty eatery at 19th Avenue and Greenway Road.

As the name implies, this is a take-away joint that combines Mexican and Chinese dishes in wacky ways. Learning to add Chinese ingredients to Mexican food wasn't too hard, says Maria Hernandez, one of Chino Bandido's three cooks, who are all from Oaxaca. "It's a little more Mexican than Chinese," she says in Spanish.

Rookies to the place, we were directed to the sampling counter to avoid long lines. ("It's almost like a Honeywell cafeteria," says manager Ricky Russo, pointing out that the restaurant gets swamped daily by workers from nearby businesses.) We were fed morsels of seven of the most popular items, including Jade Red Chicken, the most popular, and Jerk Chicken, the spiciest. It's great stuff.

Munching happily, we pondered the place's massive mascot, a giant stone panda wearing a shoulder holster and sombrero and packing two pistolas.

"It took four men to wheel it in. They had to tear down part of the wall," says Russo. "It was made in China," he notes, pointing to the shiny parts worn down by kids playing on it.

Sure, no doubt it's a great jungle gym. But the more we looked at it, the more it seemed to dislodge some long-forgotten memories.

Then it hit us -- that fuzzy herbivore's a dead ringer for the Frito Bandito!

To those too young to remember the cartoon gunman, a victim of PC politics in the 1970s, the Bandito was a funny Pancho Villa caricature who used to steal your Fritos corn chips.

Voiced by Mel Blanc, the man behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, the Bandito was heavily accented, a menace to society, and loved by millions.

"He loves cronchy [sic] Fritos corn chips so much he'll stop at nothing to get yours. What's more, he's cunning, clever and sneaky," read one 1960s ad from the corn chip giant. And nearly every kid at the time could sing the guy's theme song:

Aye, Aye, Aye, Aye. I am the Frito Bandito. I love Fritos corn chips. I love them I do. I love Fritos corn chips. I steal them from you!

We'd never stopped to wonder why it was that a criminal -- even one with a long, funny mustache -- would make for such a good product pitchman, so we asked an expert, Chris Marin, archivist and historian of the Chicano Research Collection at Arizona State University's Hayden Library.

"The original bandidos, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Gregorio Cortez, the so-called bandits -- you could call Zorro a bandit -- stole from the rich and gave to the poor," she explained.

But they were more than mere thieves. They were popular, Marin added, because they represented the frustration that many Mexicans felt during a time when their land and property were being taken away.

Marin reminded us that plenty of stereotypes of Mexicans have been used to sell Mexican products, most notably the sleeping campesino under a cactus.

But if the Bandito symbolized Robin Hood-like bad-asses fighting The Man, why was he denounced by Chicano groups in the 1970s, who forced Frito-Lay to bury him?

We seem to have arrived at a less uptight age. Try as we might, we couldn't find anyone in the least put out by the panda version of the bandido.

"I don't think of Pancho Villa," said Maria Hernandez, the Mexican cook, when we asked her about the gun-toting mascot. "There's always going to be a caricature," she said dismissively.

Assistant manager Jose Montoya, just 24 years old, admitted that he didn't even realize the company's symbol was riffing on the Frito bandit. "It's just a name. Word play," he said with a shrug.

Russo also seemed nonplussed by our questions of his mascot. "It's bringing two cultures together. It's not really Mexican, not really Chinese. It's a unique combination of both. It's just Chino's to me," he said.