¡Ask a Mexican! columnist Gustavo Arellano talks taco shop with the Alibi’s restaurant critic
By Ari LeVaux
A little history: In 2006, the Weekly Alibi became the only newspaper with the cojones to take a chance on a newly syndicated column called ¡Ask a Mexican! Six years later, the racy Q & A runs weekly in 39 newspapers around the country. Here in Albuquerque, author Gustavo Arellano has snuck into our hearts like a border-crosser in the trunk of an Impala.
Despite the growing distractions of stardom—talk shows, state dinners at Mexican embassies around the world, celebrity mud-wrestling tournaments at the Playboy Mansion and the like—Arellano has hung onto his day jobs as reporter, food editor and, most recently, editor in chief of Southern California’sOrange County Weekly. His multitasking as a foodie is all the more impressive because, by his own admission, he can’t cook to save his life.
I’ve known Arellano for a few years, mostly around the alt.weekly scene, as both of our home papers are members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Two summers ago, I broke tortillas with Arellano at the Pepper Pot in Hatch. I was down there to buy chile for the freezer, while Arellano was researching a book called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Video from that meal will be posted to alibi.com next week. Not coincidentally, that’s when the book itself will be published, and when The Mexican will be in Burque to sign copies. It goes down at an outdoor Alibi fiesta on Wednesday, April 18, at El Pinto, with live music by none other than Al Hurricane. $25 admission includes a taco buffet (no mass-produced shells here!).
Arellano was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, from which I learned, among other things, about the popularity of burritos in space. I caught up with him by phone to get the skinny—if there is such a thing—on Mexican food in America. A few other topics were sprinkled in, too, like so many chicharrónes on a puddle of green chile.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while researching Taco USA?
Oh boy, just the entirety of the situation. The whole book was a surprise after surprise after surprise for me. The fact that 120 years ago you had tamale men going across the U.S. selling tamales, that blew my mind. ...
Or the one that I completely fell into by accident was Doritos being invented at Disneyland. And the only reason I discovered that was for a completely different story. For the chapter on Cal-Mex cuisine, I had done a preview for the L.A. Timesabout the prevalence of tamale wagons in Southern California in the 1880s up to the ’20s. So I interviewed the grandson of one of those pioneer tamale wagons, XLNT. And so in just talking about his life he offhandedly mentioned, Oh yeah, we used to do Doritos [at Casa de Fritos, in Disneyland]. And I asked him, Well how did that come about? And he told me the story, and that just blew my mind.
What’s the next big Mexican food thing?
We’re in the middle, of course, of the taco truck revolution right now, with the luxe loncheras. At the same time we’re also in the middle of the burrito revolution, specifically the Mission–style burrito of San Francisco. ...
I think the next trend, if you want to call it a trend, really is regional Mexican cooking. Most people aren’t familiar with all the different dishes of Mexico. They might have heard of moles, but they don’t know about all the moles of Oaxaca, they don’t know the food of Mexico City or Sinaloa.
As more Mexicans start moving around the United States, that’s what’s going to be the next thing. People are going to start loving those foods and start to introduce those foods into their own cooking.
You kind of had that already with Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. They’ve been at it for decades. But the real sort of cuisine—or at least, I don’t like the word “real”—but the readily available offerings of those cuisines are now just starting to pop up around the United States.
Like, I remember when I was in San Antonio a couple of years ago, the Current had a cover story of, Hey the taco trucks that are now in San Antonio aren’t selling puffy tacos, or San Antonio-style tacos, but tacos like carne asada. The reason is actual Mexican immigrants, not from the north of Mexico or from Tex-Mex, they’re starting to come into San Antonio and they’re bringing their own cuisine as well. And that’s San Antonio. Now imagine the South or Midwest. You’re going to have all these new fans of this new type of cuisine.
Can you talk about Den-Mex cuisine?
Oh, Den-Mex cuisine! This week, the cover story for Westword is called “Mexican Hamburger Helper: How I learned to stop worrying and love Den-Mex food.”
It’s all about my love for Den-Mex. Of all the regional cuisines of the American Southwest, Colorado Mexican in general—but really Den-Mex cuisine—that’s the one that no one ever considers. No one ever talks about it.
Den-Mex is really the cousin of New Mexico-style food, because there is that very strong connection between the people who settled southern Colorado—all those Hispanos, they all came from New Mexico. They know the cult of the smothered burrito. They know the cult of just chile, of good fulsome chiles and being able to eat them.
You guys don’t have chile rellenos wrapped in wontons. That’s a Denver phenomenon. And in addition to the smothered burrito, what Denver also has—that I don’t think you guys have—are “cooler” burritos. This is a Denver phenomenon where you have men and women going from office building to office building selling burritos. Foil-wrapped burritos, nothing big, not like a Mission-style burrito, but selling them from office building to office building.
I think it’s a tragedy in its own way that, you know, Chipotle is from Denver. So the Denver burrito that became famous wasn’t the indigenous burrito of Denver, but rather the Mission-style burrito that hopped its way to Denver.
And the funny thing is, Denverites, they think that everyone knows about their foods. When I went out there and told them that you can’t find this in the United States, specifically the Mexican hamburger, they were like, Really? They really acted surprised. So in the article I say, “I love you, Denver, but nobody gives a shit about your food.”
The only people who care about Den-Mex are people from Denver and expats. But the food, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful cuisine, it is the cousin of New Mexico cuisine.
And as I pointed out in my chapter on the Southwestern food movement, even America doesn’t know about the indigenous New Mexico-style cuisine. All they know is the fad that was Southwestern cuisine. But you don’t see the traditions that have remained in New Mexico spread nationwide, with the exception of those piepeeyas. That’s the only one that really spread.
Oh sopaipillas, of course. You’ve got such a thick Mexican accent you’ll have to bear with me. So for the viewers at home, can you describe the Mexican hamburger?
Sure. Mexican hamburger is essentially a smothered burrito, usually with beans and chicharrónes, but with a hamburger patty inside. Right smack dab in the middle, it’s all scrunched up in the middle of the burrito. And it’s smothered in Denver-style chile. We’re not playing the red or green game or even Christmas game here. We’re talking orange. It’s an orange chile. And not chili con carne. This would be more like a chile from New Mexico.
It’s made from tomato, chile—Colorado-style chile peppers—pork, lard, I think some cumin inside. It is a bizarre chile. Especially considering it’s the cousin of New Mexico-style chile, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And it’s also spicy as hell. You think, Oh, it’s made with tomato and it’s orange as a Denver Broncos jersey—it’s not going to be spicy. It really catches up to you.
Unlike, say, a good Hatch-style chile or even Chimayó-style, which might bite you at the beginning, the Denver-style chile never bites you until the very end. When I had it for the first time I thought, Oh I’ll put some hot sauce on it to make it spicy. But my friend’s like, No, no, no, no, no—let it catch up to you. And oh brother, it did.
So it kind of kisses you before it slaps you?
Yeah, like a good woman, right?
“That America chose the Southwest chicken salad over all the other great foods of New Mexico says more about America than New Mexico.”
So while you think of Den-Mex as this undiscovered gem, you also argue that Tex-Mex is dying. How so?
I’m sure once the book comes out a lot of people are going to say, Oh, it’s not dying. You know, What a ridiculous statement. But what’s happening in Texas is you’re getting more Mexicans. And again, not the Mexicans from the traditional migration states of Nuevo León, Coahuila and Chihuahua. Not northern Mexico, which a lot of Tex-Mex [draws from], but you’re getting new styles of Mexican food, and people are starting to gravitate to them. And the people that have loved Tex-Mex all of these decades, they’re going to start eschewing them in favor of new foods.
It happened here in California. California tamales, traditionally, they had olives inside of them because that was the trademark of the Spanish priests and the traditional California culture. But no one eats tamales with olives anymore, or very rarely, because the tamales that dominate right now are the tamales from central Mexico, where you’re not going to put olives in them, for the most part.
So similarly, with Tex-Mex food, I would say Tex-Mex as a whole is slowly going to disappear and turn into something else.
But in the meanwhile, the same way that New Mexico has been able to preserve its traditions, you go to certain cities in Texas, I don’t think their traditions are going to disappear. So queso I think will always have a place. Just like the puffy taco, which is going to be from San Antonio, breakfast tacos from Austin and the rolled tacos from El Paso. They’re always going to have their place, but they’re never going to gravitate outside of that food. ...
Tex–Mex for decades was ascendant. It was the dominant player. Look at chili con carne. Chili is completely assimilated into the American diet.
In the battle for America’s appetite, regarding Mexican food, it was always a battle between California and Texas. New Mexico or, you know, a style of New Mexican had its advent in the ’80s. And now all you have is what’s alternately called Southwestern chicken salad and Santa Fe chicken salad. That’s really the only remnant of that. ...
I would say that California won the Mexican war. You’re going to have many more restaurants selling tacos and burritos then you do Tex-Mex. And now you have the regional Mexican food that really started in California, or at least the appreciation of that. And, yeah, you’re going to seeTex-Mex slowly disappear from the American landscape.
How does that make you feel?
I think it’s sad. I’m a fan of Tex-Mex. A lot of people dismiss it as trash, but it’s not. Tex-Mex has its own charm.
Look at what Robb Walsh is doing in Houston with his restaurant El Real Tex-Mex. He basically set that up because he himself—this is like an apostle of Tex-Mex, a friend and a mentor of mine—he felt that Tex-Mex food was slowly disappearing, at least the traditional methods were slowly disappearing. So this is his shrine to Tex-Mex.
But that you would have to have someone that says, Hey, we’re going to bring back all these traditional recipes, that goes to show what’s happening with the food.
It is a Mexican food tradition and it’s also an American food tradition. So it’s worthy of keeping, and it’s worthy of extolling. That said, if it comes between Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex, I’ll probably side with Cal-Mex, just because ... I like Cal-Mex food better.
Can you clarify what you mean by Cal-Mex?
Cal-Mex, you know, the burrito, the taco, the emphasis on, say, carne asada, carnitas, menudo. All those dishes would classify as part of California-Mexican.
You purport to respect all incarnations of Mexican food in the U.S. and everywhere. So do you truly respect hard shell tacos?
Hard shell tacos. Well, we’re talking about two things. If we’re talking about the taco dorado, where you really fry the shell fresh, yes there is something beautiful to say about the crispiness and the greasiness of the hard shell taco. The problem comes when you mass-produce these things, and of course the quality of the food just goes down terribly. I just went to Providence, R.I., to speak at Providence College. And God bless the kids, they had a taco buffet, but what were the tacos? It was hard shell tacos. So the ingredients were fine, but then you bite into that hard shell taco and like, ughhh, it just doesn’t pass muster. It just doesn’t compare at all.
The worst “soft taco” is 1,000 times better than the best hard shell taco created by mass-produced hard shells.
Just to be clear, by mass-produced hard shells, you’re talking about the ones that come already folded.
Yes, the ones you can buy at stores. The ones that are used by fast food chains and restaurants. And of course you can totally tell the difference between a mass-produced one and a freshly fried one.
Speaking of mass-produced Mexican food, can you talk about canned tamales and canned tortillas, both of which you discuss in the book?
I have yet to try either of those. The canned tamales, I know they still exist. Obviously you’re probably not going to find any more in Southern California because why would you need canned tamales when you just go to your neighbor who’s selling them out of the trunk of her car?
Canned tortillas, I am determined to find them. They are extinct from regular methods of buying. In other words, from supermarkets.
Old El Paso used to make them, doesn’t make them anymore. Rosarita used to make them, doesn’t make them anymore.
I found one place here in Southern California that still makes them. But I think they only sell them for survivalists.
Canned tamales, especially the original ones, the ones that were sold in the early 1900s, you basically had a can of masa and beef with chile right in the middle. It probably wasn’t that good, but at least I could imagine a certain taste. With masa, you know, you reheat masa and it’s going to have a certain taste.
Canned tortillas, on the other hand, wow, that is like the holy grail of Mexican food for me. I have to find it. If it means going through a windstorm in hell to get one, I will get one.
There are probably canned tamales in bomb shelters and survivalist bunkers.
That’s what I’m figuring. I remember when my cousins moved into this new house—this was like 15 years ago—they went through the attic and they found old WWII ration cans for soldiers. And lo and behold, the soldiers had their hot sauce. It was a small little bottle of Tabasco hot sauce. ...
As I show in the book, the military has long used Mexican food and long served Mexican food to the soldiers. Since we’re talking about canned tamales: I actually just came across a clip [from] the early 1900s from when we were occupying the Philippines and fighting the Filipinos there. The army decided to start sending canned chicken tamales to the soldiers out there.
Most people can’t even comprehend canned tamales, let alone that they’ve been in this country for over a century, let alone that we were feeding our soldiers withthem. But there you go. That’s how crazy Americans have been for Mexican food.
Your book shouts out New Mexican food, too. Talk about Angelina’s chicharrónes.
Oh, those things were beautiful. It’s up in Española. In Albuquerque somebody told me about this place in Española that has lamb chicharrónes. I had never had lamb chicharrónes before. I couldn’t even conceive of it. ...
Not only did I try the lamb chicharrónes but I also tried the chicos, too. I’d never had chicos before. These are amazing meals that will never travel out of New Mexico.
Most Americans already went through their Southwestern food fad. And you try to say, Hey, try chicos. ... They’re going to say, What? What’s that? That’s not New Mexican food. That’s not Southwestern food.
I think it’s a tragedy, but hey—you guys are the lucky ones because you get to actually have these dishes.
Agreed. I make chicos myself.
They’re so amazing. Wouldn’t it be fair if chicos were New Mexico’s national representative instead of fucking Southwest chicken salad? We’d be a much better country, but whatever. That America chose the Southwest chicken salad over all the other great foods of New Mexico says more about America than New Mexico.
Speaking of America at large, if you had a magic wand with which to resolve the tensions around the border, what would you do?
If I had a magic wand, we’d legalize drugs up here, which means the narco war would end down there. Which means we wouldn’t have what I believe is the true problem on the border, which is drug trafficking.
Once that drug trafficking is out, I would create some sort of, not a wall, I don’t like walls, but some kind of monitoring system that basically lets us know everyone that comes in. We’d keep all the bad people out, all the narco people. Everyone else, hey, you want to come into this country and be good, then come on in. I guess the metaphor would be a high wall with wide-open gates.
You’ve handled a lot of stereotypes in your column. Which one bothers you the most?
To me, the dumbest one is the idea that all Mexicans always remain poor and basically retrogrades. And the idea that Mexicans don’t assimilate into American culture. It’s not true. Mexicans assimilate into American culture. It’s the Americans who refuse to believe that we can do that.
It’s silly. I would use my family’s example. My parents came to this country 40 years ago. I’m their oldest. The first language I spoke was Spanish. The only language I spoke when I entered kindergarten was Spanish. Here I am speaking to you in English.
But you still can’t cook. So why did you write this book?
As a reporter, there was a great story to tell: the spread of Mexican food across the United States, especially given all the myths and misconceptions about it.
As a lover of food, I basically got to eat almost nothing but Mexican food across the country for the past three years. It was a vacation for me.
And as a historian, I love history, I love hidden histories, and Taco USA is all about the hidden histories: of unearthing those long-forgotten pioneers and telling the tale.
It was a pleasure to write. I can’t believe it’s getting published next week, because it’s been my whole life for the past three years.
¡Taco USA Party!
Wednesday, April 18, 6 to 9 p.m.
Talk and book signing with Gustavo Arellano Live music by the incomparable Al Hurricane Complimentary taco bar, chips and salsa
El Pinto 10500 Fourth Street NW (north of Alameda)