Perhaps best-known as the man behind the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!, Gustavo Arellano has also been the food critic at OC Weekly for eleven years (he is also now that publication’s editor). Those two things dovetail fully in his third book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which both celebrates and laments the complete assimilation of Mexican food into uniquely American—but still no less authentic—forms.
Writing about everything from Gebhard’s chili powder and Tex-Mex to margaritas and Korean tacos, Arellano also rips Diana Kennedy’s purism, defends the fast food taco, and even mentions TEXAS MONTHLY more than a few times.
“The United States is on the losing side of this Mexican-American War—and boy, are we grateful,” Arellano writes.
When you wrote about “The Five Most Influential Cities in the Development of Mexican Food in the United States,” based on material from the book, you picked three from Texas. So how come Texas only appears once in your chapter, “What Are the Five Greatest Mexican Meals in the United States?”
You Texans can’t get everything, man. Even though you guys want it. It’s funny, because I get crap from Californians, saying, ‘Why do you give so much attention to Texas?” Especially for putting San Antonio over Los Angeles … and saying it’s by a large margin!
The history of Mexican food in the United States, it’s impossible to tell without Texas. I love Tex-Mex food. Y’know, the puffy tacos from Henry’s and the breakfast tacos from Torchy’s, all the amazing dishes. I love them. And even in Texas, I don’t think enough people realize the brilliance of Chico’s. Chico’s [rolled tacos] don’t get as much love as, say the puffy tacos and all the other dishes, and that’s one of the reasons why I picked that [at number two].
But when it came to picking the five most memorable dishes in the United States, some stories are better told than other stories. The story of Chubby’s in Denver, it beat everyone. (Editor’s Note: Chubby’s signature dish is a “Mexican hamburger”: a hamburger burrito with red chile, hamburger and chicharrones. Arellano calls it “the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje.”).
The cities on that list were San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Houston wasn’t happy …
Oh my God, I got so much crap from Houstonians over putting Dallas ahead of them. I was shocked. That would be explained, of course, by the fact that I’m not from Texas, so I didn’t realize there was such a humongous rivalry. I thought all you Texans were the same–nod, nod, wink, wink.
What it boiled down to was just the reality. Houston, this is not an insult toward your native cuisine, this is just talking about which city influenced the rest of the United States more, and with Houston, yeah, there’s Ninfa’s, but all Ninfa did was bring up the plate from Laredo, and then a bunch of restaurateurs from across the country came in and ripped her off. That’s one thing. One achievement.
And then other people were trying to say Felix Tijerina, and hey, Felix was a civil rights icon for Latinos in the United States, but his restaurant business, it never spread out of the Houston area. It never influenced the course of Mexican food in the United State.
Dallas, on the other hand, you had the frozen margarita, you had Elmor Doolin moving from San Antonio to Dallas and launching the Frito-Lay empire. And then, with El Fenix and El Chico, the Cuellars and the Martinezes, they basically created the genre of Tex-Mex, which influenced Mexican food in the United States for so many decades. On that alone, they beat Houston by a longshot.
Everyone from Houston took it so injuriously. People from Dallas, on the other hand, they shrugged their shoulders. So I’m thinking that speaks more about Houston’s sense of insecurity about itself, versus Dallas’s self-entitlement.
You write about TEXAS MONTHLY’s most recent Mexican Food issue, in which our critic Patricia Sharpe wrote about “a new culinary era: the time of Mex-Tex,” calling it “an inglorious obituary” for Tex-Mex.
I think I was in San Antonio when I saw that issue, and I got blown away, because I think of TEXAS MONTHLY as the guardian of everything right and wonderful with Texas, so when I saw “Mex-Tex,” I knew of course your food critic was doing it to spark that debate, and also I knew there was a reality to it. Tex-Mex, with the traditonal migration of Mexicans from Northern Mexico into Texas, you had a certain type of cuisine, but, now with Mexicans coming from all over Mexico, your cuisine was being changed. But really, to change it from Tex-Mex to Mex-Tex, wow! It blew me away.
So I had to include that in my chapter. Even the bible of Texas was sort of, if not proclaiming the death of Tex-Mex, then at least saying, ‘hey, we’re in a new era now,’ is Tex-Mex going to survive. But if anything, the cuisine has shown that it will adapt. It’s no longer the plain and simple era of combo plates, but something new and, I would argue, something better. The continuation of the hybrid cuisine.
You’ve made your distaste for keepers of Mexican “authenticity” known, but is it possible to be too counterinteruitive—where only hybrid cuisine is valid to you, and purist cuisine is not?
No, good food is good food is good food. Just because a dish is Tex-Mex doesn’t make it amazing. It all depends on who’s making it, and how does it taste? My big argument in Taco USA is that there is no such thing as an authentic Mexican meal experience. There’s regional variations of Mexican food, absolutely, and not all of them are going to be equal to others. Some are going to be much more superior than the others.
But that said, the puffy taco is as authentically Mexican as a mole poblano from Puebla, which is as authentically Mexican as a Sonora dog from Tucson, which is as authentically Mexican as Oaxacan food, which is as authentically Mexican as tater-tot burritos made by the Taco John’s chain. Are they equally delicious? No, not at all. But they’re all Mexican in their own way.
You’re in Austin Wednesday and San Antonio Thursday. So where will you be eating?
At my book signing, the Tacorama people, I know they’re going to have a taco truck, so of course I’ve got to taste a taco. Then after that we’re going to have dinner God knows where. And then in the morning I have to go find some breakfast tacos. I’m going to leave that up to a friend of mine. He likes Torchy’s, but I’ve been to Torchy’s before, so we’ll go somewhere else. And then in San Antonio, I have to go to Ray’s to get my puffy taco. Sorry Henry’s. It’s just better.