Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA is an absorbing collection of vignettes, anecdotes and little-known facts about the introduction of Mexican food to the United States and its subsequent integration into the traditional American diet. Tortillas alone are an $8 billion industry in the United States. From his descriptions of the classic characters behind the margarita machine and El Torito to the trajectory of Tapatio distribution, Arellano knows it all, literally. He is the acclaimed author of the nationally syndicated column, “¡Ask a Mexican!,” carried in the OC Weekly, in which he answers questions about Mexican-American culture ranging from “How much do I pay my day laborer?” to “Why do Latin women describe themselves as ‘spicy’?” Arellano’s refreshingly candid satire is thought-provoking and hilarious enough to merit a nod from Stephen Colbert. Arellano took some time via telephone to explain the genesis of Taco USA, the fine art of the “Mexican hamburger” and how Ventura’s Ortega Adobe is more than just a shack by the 101, it is the seat of an empire.
VCReporter: Good afternoon! Your book Taco USA is incredible, but first I just wanted to ask you about your column, ¡Ask a Mexican! How do you deal with some of the more xenophobic questions you receive?
Arellano: You have to, you absolutely have to have to. If you don’t, you let them run with their view of Mexican-American people. By going after them, you don’t battle them immediately, you may not initially win the battle, but do end up winning the war of truth. It might take a couple years, it might take a couple decades. It might even be a futile war, but that’s not going to stop you from trying.
They can outspend you, but they can’t outnumber you.
So the book reminded me a lot of the book Oil by Upton Sinclair. It’s so richly textured. You have facts. You have anecdotes. How did you start your research?
Some of the stuff I already knew over the years. I am a nerd first and foremost, and I read anything and everything that comes my way. And then after I finished my second book, Orange County: A Personal History, I was thinking of a book project. It was actually my agent who said, “You should do a book about the history of Mexican food.” And at first I didn’t want to do it. I assumed that it had already been done; I have always been about pursuing projects nobody has ever bothered with. But as I started doing a little bit of preliminary research to realizing I could do such a book, I realized that there was no such book in American letters. I decided to tackle it.
I read that you began with a friend’s Korean taco idea?
No, no. That was sort of the inspiration, it wasn’t like the final “yeah, I gotta do this.” Because right when all this was happening, that was the initial stages of this taco truck called Kogi Korean BBQ, which, of course, set off the whole food truck phase that’s crossed the United States. But they got their inspiration from this blog, which I also read, by this guy named Dylan Ho, who started reminiscing about his college days here at UCI [University of California, Irvine] in the late ’90s, early 2000s, talking about Korean tacos. I’d never even thought of them or heard of them before. I just thought it was so awesome. It was so wonderful to see something like this manifest itself on American campuses. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, maybe if I just tried to track how we came to a society where Korean kids think it’s totally awesome to transpose their foods inside a tortilla and make Korean tacos.”
When you have to conduct this field research, how do you embed yourself, so to speak?
I start eating food. I have a lifetime of experience eating Mexican food. In terms of nationwide Mexican food eating, I did that for three years for the research for my book.
Gustavo Arellano dedicated the last three years of his life exploring Mexican food
and how it crosses cultural barriers in America.
Why do you think Mexican food is so appealing to the American palate?
Various reasons. One is our familiarity with it. The easy answer is that the food is so good, which really is the most honest answer. The real reason is that, not only is the food familiar, but there are always these new trends [in Mexican food] that replenish the cuisine. Instead of Americans getting tired of the cuisine, say like P.F. Chang’s for Chinese-American, or other sorts of food, there is always sort of a tweaking of Mexican food, which makes it exciting for people all over again.
You describe Southwestern and Tex-Mex, how those trends sort of swept the nation and now they’re pretty much gone.
Yeah, they sort of just disappeared, or even the hard-shell taco or chili con carne. The history of Mexican food in this country is awash in examples of various trends, and most of the trends ended up sticking around, then they just became assimilated into the American palate.
Can you explain to our readers the difference between Mexican food and what is, say, “agringado”?
Oh, “agringado” or “agabachando” is Americanized. Those are just Mexican-American food traditions that, for a child of Mexican immigrants like myself, it’s just foreign food. For me, the whole idea of a combo platter, buried in yellow cheese with a pointless salad, lettuce and tomatoes on the side with three enchiladas and a hard-shell taco and ground beef — that’s foreign food to me. That’s not food that I grew up with, but that is the food that a good one or two generations of Americans consider Mexican food.
Your mom never made a crunchwrap?
Oh, no, no, no. That’s not to say by default that makes it somehow less authentic than the food that my mom made. It doesn’t make it worse. I probably won’t be eating that food often, but I’m still going to give it the validity it deserves.
Sure, if it’s part of your diet, if it’s something you grew up with, there’s no reason to totally write it off. It is what it is and there certainly could be better things out there. Speaking of better things out here, I can’t believe you actually did research about [Ventura’s] Ortega Adobe. Is it really the birthplace of the Ortega chili empire?
It absolutely is! Ortega’s own history gives it credit. The old labels for the chili had the Adobe on them. If you go there now, it tells you the whole remarkable story. I just wish more people would visit it and it was kept in a little better condition, given that it is such an important place in the annals of Mexican food in this country.
The Ortega Adobe in Ventura is the birthplace of the Ortega chili empire.
The adobe is open daily at 215 W. Main Street. Free admission.
It seems a lot like some of the forgotten murals in Ventura County. You write a bit about murals in Taco USA. What do you think their connection is to Mexican restaurants?
What happened with Mexican restaurants, as I tracked in my book, is that for the owners of Mexican restaurants, it wasn’t enough to be a Mexican restaurant serving Mexican food. They had to offer an experience, and one of the ways is via art, little cultural signifiers like a sleeping Mexican under a cactus, a mural or the music, mariachi or music from a jukebox or even a Virgin Mary in the corner.
It is surprising that you wrote a bit about Maryolatry, the worship of Mary over Jesus in certain Latin-American cultures. What do you think the connection is between the Virgin Mary and Mexican food? Does she take a maternal role in the preparation of food or something similar?
Mary is the mother of Jesus; and in Mexican society, you have that approach to women. They can be portrayed as virgins or as whores and that’s an oversimplification, but a lot of these restaurants, run by Mexican immigrants who are mostly Catholic, having a Mary in their restaurant is not some kitschy hipster thing, it’s a manifestation of the faith they frequently look to and pray to in their quest to create a successful restaurant.
Do you liken it to a Taoist shrine in an Asian restaurant, where it might cause a little cognitive dissonance among the patrons, or does flavor prevail?
It doesn’t matter. American society has shown that it doesn’t matter how Mexican food is served; it could be from a can, it could be in outer space, it could be from a truck or a high-end restaurant or even from a street vendor. Americans will eat Mexican food, damn any obstacles that may be in their way.
It seems like people forget cultural differences when they’re hungry. Do you ever, in your weekly column, address food issues?
All the time! That’s one of the chapters in my [second] book because so many people ask me questions about Mexican food.
Getting provincial, we in Ventura County have a dish called “corn burritos.” Are you familiar with them?
What’s a corn burrito?
Oh! A corn burrito is a mound of refried beans wrapped in a tortilla then deep fried and covered in cheese.
That sounds delicious!
Photo by: DK Crawford
Corn burritos pictured here at Chickyweedy’s in Santa Paula can be found
at many mom and pop Mexican resaurants throughout Ventura County.
We’ll send some your way.
I’ve never heard of it but I think it’s wonderful because its further proof of the assimilation of Mexican food into the United States, as I’ve talked about in my book, there are so many traditions that are limited to a specific region. Right now it seems like the burrito has a broader diversity than the taco. Tacos are pretty straightforward. You’ve got your carne asada taco or your Korean taco. It seems like wherever burritos may be, whatever region has their own traditions. In San Diego County, you have the California burrito, which is a burrito stuffed with French fries. In the Mission District [in San Francisco], you have “Mission-style,” which has been made popular by the Chipotle chain. In the Inland Empire, you have something called the “Garbage burrito,” which is just a whole bunch of stuff inside a burrito. Now you have this “corn burrito.” In fact, when I go up there [to Ventura] for my museum visit, I’m going to get myself one.
What’s your favorite regional dish aside from the Mexican hamburger you describe in your book?
Well, yeah, the Mexican hamburger! That’s the greatest dish in the United States, this monstrosity of “mestizaje,” the Denver chili, the chicharrones, the “smotheredness” of it all; I think it’s magnificent. Every region has its own tradition; I celebrate them all! Breakfast burritos with Tater Tots? I think that’s awesome! Puffy tacos from San Antonio? Corn burritos from Ventura? It’s all wonderful.
I’m so glad we could introduce you to something new!
I am excited, I really am. This isn’t just me pretending to be excited.
How about recommendations for people in the area?
I think my favorite so far is called Cuernavaca [Taqueria Cuernavaca]. It’s this awesome place that sells something called alambres. Alambres are basically six corn tortillas put on a plate and on top of it is a mix of meat, cheese, jalapeños. Alambre means “wire” in Spanish. They are amazing.
Wow, that sounds incredible.
The interesting thing about this place is that alambres are not very common in Southern California, not even in Orange County. So when I went there, I asked them, “Where are you from?” because Cuernavaca is a city in Mexico, and they said, “We’re from Cuernavaca.” So I asked, “Where are most of the Mexican immigrants around here from here, in Ventura?” and they said, “Yeah, most of them are from Cuernavaca.” That is so interesting.
You write vividly about Larry Cano, the man behind El Torito. Ventura lost its El Torito and I wonder, what happened to El Torito and what is Larry doing?
Larry is still alive and kicking. I think he’s 89 years old now. He sold El Torito a long time ago. He’s thinking up some new concepts and we’ll see if any of them hit, but his chain, El Torito, I think the parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2010 so they are desperately trying to stay relevant. I once wrote an Op-Ed piece for the L.A. Times about the decline of El Torito, and the CEO got really upset with me. They were saying, “Oh, you’re just being elitist and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” My response was, “I’m not trashing El Torito; its food is not bad. It was a pioneer in the business, but the reality of it is that Southern California and, really, the United States doesn’t want that type of Mexican food anymore. At its height, El Torito had about 250 restaurants. Now there are less than 50 and they are still continuing to close. They’re not opening any new ones anymore. That’s not an indictment of El Torito. That’s just proof that the American palate is insatiable for Mexican food and it’s always looking for the next big thing.
So be it Mission-style burrito …
Exactly. Chipotle isn’t even 20 years old and they have over a thousand locations in the United States and throughout the world. Before that, it was Taco Bell and before that it was Del Taco. Right now we’re having all of these food trucks. It goes in waves. In this sense, it’s interesting; the chains and the entrepreneurs that ultimately survived are actually the mom-and-pops so you don’t see too many companies exist on their own more than 50 years because they usually get bought out. Even Ortega, the Ortega family no longer owns the Ortega name. It’s owned by some multinational corporation or another. They don’t survive that long. Then compare that to some of the small mom-and-pop restaurants across the country that are 50, 80, 85 years old. Even though they never transformed into super chains or into multimillion-dollar empires, they are chugging along there because they realize that either you adapt to the times and you change your business plan, or you serve food that’s so amazing it’s literally timeless — that will never change.
One last thing: since it is election season, how do you feel about politicians “pandering” to the Latino vote?
When politicians feel that a legitimate way to reach out to Latino voters is by eating at a local taqueria, you know that they don’t understand us at all!
Gustavo Arellano will be discussing his odyssey into the world of the mighty burrito and signing copies of Taco USA at the Museum of Ventura County on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. Admission is $5 for the general public, $3 for students and seniors and includes free entry to all exhibit galleries. Admission is free for museum members.