For me, the peak of Mexican cuisine was always the quesadilla. At any taqueria, it was an easy order for a kid. I loved them served the customary way—queso asado between two hand-pressed corn tortillas—but I also loved the variations. At a taqueria called Pancho Villa, a short walk from where I grew up in the Bay Area, the cooks would take one of the huge flour tortillas they used for burritos, fill it with queso quesadilla, and fold it up like an envelope. Then they’d fry it on the same grill they used for the carne asada. The result—a quesadilla suiza—was simple and gorgeous. Those quesadillas were baptized on a seasoned grill; I was baptized in holy water.
When it comes to Mexican food, I was never a traditionalist, then or now. My favorite quesadilla was the one my grandma would make for me. My abuela boldly challenged stereotypes about Mexican American grandmothers—which is to say, cooking was never her great talent, and the way she’d make quesadillas was utilitarian. When I’d visit her in San Antonio every Christmas, she’d throw cheese and butter between two grocery-store tortillas and then toss the creation into her ancient microwave. When it cooked, the smell would mix with the floral scent of the air freshener she used as the microwave’s dials clicked like an old film reel. Obviously, those quesadillas shouldn’t have been anything special, or even particularly edible, but it was Grandma’s house and Grandma’s cooking. I’m not sure I’ll taste something as perfect as that again.
For everyone else, at least right now, the epitome of Mexican cuisine is the taco. Especially in Austin, people are obsessed. Friends and coworkers get into competitive conversations about where the best breakfast tacos are. Lines outside the Torchy’s down the street from me block the sidewalk, even on hot days. “Let’s go get tacos” is one of the worst Tinder clichés, and, when I open Instagram, the golden husks of quesabirria tacos fill my feed.
What I have been trying to understand is why this bothers me. For at least a few years now, America’s fixation on tacos has left me with a constant, low-grade frustration. I love tacos, but seeing them everywhere makes me unhappy. I find myself asking, out of all the different kinds of Mexican and Mexican American dishes—sopes, flautas, huaraches, enfrijoladas, tlayudas—why did gringos latch on to the taco?
When I look back, I can pinpoint the exact time taco culture began to upset me. It was February 2021, and I was in Tijuana on a reporting trip. The city, at the northern end of Baja California, is widely heralded as one of the world’s food capitals. At the restaurant La Corriente Cevicheria Nais, Tijuana’s dominance in the arena of mariscos—seafood—is on brilliant display. Two tacos in particular deserve remark: the first features a chile relleno filled with shrimp, which is placed in a tortilla that’s been dipped in consommé and fried. The second is simpler—just chicharrón de pulpo in a hand-pressed corn tortilla—but the fried octopus has a flavor that’s at once fresh and crisp, as if it’s been grilled and fried at the same time. (Chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero has called this sort of unique cuisine, endemic to Tijuana, Baja Med—a blend of Mexican and Mediterranean influences, olive oil next to cotija cheese, calamari fried as if it’s a pork chicharrón.)
The best taco I’ve ever had might have come from a more traditional taqueria with a strange name: Tacos “El Ruso,” or “Russian Tacos,” in north Tijuana. (The city has a large Russian and Ukrainian population, but I learned the name is a joke: the owner is Mexican, but so light-skinned his friends call him Ruso.) A viejita stood between a tortilla press and a round comal. In a methodical process, she’d roll masa between her hands, place it in the press, squeeze, open, and then throw it on the comal. (If you’ve made tortillas by hand, you know how much practice it can take to get this perfect.) A few feet away, three men fed mesquite wood underneath a grill where carne asada cooked, giving off its gorgeous aroma. When it all came together, the tacos were simple: carne asada in a tortilla, finished with some cilantro and onion. The meat was perfectly done, filled with flavors of melted fat and mesquite smoke, and the tortilla was so delicious I was reminded of where the word “tortilla” comes from: it tasted like cake.
On that particular trip, however, I had not come to Tijuana to eat. I had come to report on a refugee camp that had sprung up just outside the border crossing into San Diego, in front of a pedestrian bridge locals call El Chapparal. In tents and sleeping bags lined up along the concrete, families from some of Mexico’s most violent states—places like Guerrero, Michoacán, and Sinaloa—talked to me. Most of them fled gangs that operated like warlords, claiming territory, charging taxes, and conscripting boys as young as twelve to be soldiers. The mothers I spoke to were desperate. They didn’t want their children sleeping in tents on concrete, but going back to their home states in Mexico was simply not an option. They had lined up at the border in hopes that President Joe Biden, who had just taken office, would undo Title 42, a public health policy that Donald Trump had used as an asylum ban, slamming the door on any would-be refugees. But during the week I spent there, Biden didn’t budge. In fact, the policy remains in effect today.
When I returned home to San Francisco, where I was living at the time, I experienced my first pang of taco anger. At a house party, the conversation turned to where to get quesabirria tacos in town. To be honest, I’ve never liked birria tacos, at least not the way they’re done in the U.S.: lathered like an oil slick and over-cheesed. But it wasn’t just the choice of taco. Something about the whole experience felt jarring to me. Days before, I’d met with Mexicans so desperate for refuge in this country they were sleeping out on concrete in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere. Now, in San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the world, I was surrounded by non–Mexican Americans obsessed with trying Mexican food gone viral.
It was a stark reminder of a fact I’ve recognized since I was a child: Americans can love Mexican food but hate Mexican people. The same kids I knew at school who used words like “beaner” would also talk excitedly about where to buy the best burritos in town.
I think it’s perhaps because of this bitter paradox that the taco is both loved and ridiculed. Tacos are often the butt of jokes. At a relay race in which I ran this summer, there were at least two teams with taco puns as names—one of them was “Don’t Look at Our Tacos.” On Halloween, people wear taco costumes.
I’m not the only one bothered by the taco obsession. When New York magazine did a review of a decade of swiping (Tinder was first released ten years ago) this August, writer Danielle Cohen proclaimed liking tacos to be one of the more odious facts people included in their bios. “The inclusion of tacos in your profile — whether in emoji form or under your list of hobbies — was supposed to indicate that you were laid-back but mildly cultured: cool enough to know about food beyond pizza and burgers but not so weird that you would stray outside the mainstream,” Connolly wrote. Liking tacos does to one’s personality what a jalapeño does for pico de gallo: it adds a bit of spice, but not enough to alienate white people.
When I try to talk to friends about my newfound taco aversion, they assume I’m grumpy about “inauthentic” tacos. I’m not sure that’s right. It may get me canceled, but I’ll admit I love a Torchy’s taco: the Austin-based fast-casual eatery knows how to make a flavorful and indulgent meal. (It does make me grumpy that when people buy tacos at Torchy’s, the majority of their money doesn’t go to Mexican people, but the debate about appropriation is so complicated, I won’t get into it here.) I’m not bothered by adapting and fusing cuisines. I mean, por Dios, the taco itself is fusion food! The tortilla is ancient Mesoamerican, but most of the fillings we associate with tacos—beef, cheese, chicken, pork—are all introductions from Europe, brought over with the conquistadors and other invasive species.
On a recent trip to Mexico City, I came back late from a pulque bar. On the street where I was staying, all the shops had closed, and a group of chilangos (a name for residents of Mexico City) had gathered around a taco stand. One woman wore scrubs; the other, a maid’s uniform. I recognized one of the men as the clerk at a nearby grocery store I visited. They chatted quietly with the taquero as he fried up some of the last pieces of suadero from the day for their tacos. “That’s an authentic taco,” I thought to myself. It has nothing to do with the ingredients, the construction, or even the flavor, but rather with what tacos are meant to do: nourish people. Like my grandma cooking me those quesadillas.