Book Review: Gustavo Arellano's 'Taco USA'


At some point in the nineties, urban legend has it, salsa surpassed ketchup as America's favorite condiment. In his new book Taco USA, "Ask a Mexican" columnist and OC native Gustavo Arellano sets the story straight: total revenue from US salsa sales does exceed that of ketchup, but volume-wise, ketchup remains the conqueror. Nonetheless, America's infatuation with Mexican food is undeniable, and Taco USA is Arellano's chronicle of how multiple culinary traditions collided to create the bagged tortilla chip, the chicken fajita, the frozen margarita, and countless other staples of the contemporary American diet.

There are no recipes concealed within the 300-odd pages of Arellano's book; he is in no rush to join the "authenticity" battle over Mexican cuisine to which noted non-Mexicans like Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, Susan Feniger and Jonathan Gold have all lent their voices. Instead, he traces Mexican food's humble stateside origins in the late 1800s through to the midcentury craze for fast-food tacos and lands, finally, at LA's own Kogi BBQ Truck. Along the way, he shares the fascinating and often surprising origins of national brands like Taco Bell, El Torito, Chi-Chi's, Frito-Lay, Pace, Tapatio and more.

Gustavo Arellano's history of Mexican food in the US crisscrosses the nation, but unsurprisingly, many of its touchpoints are located right here in Southern California. Get a taste (or a bellyful) of culinary history at the below eateries:

- Cielito Lindo: Arellano cites this taco stand at the north end of Olvera Street as the "baptismal font" of the American taco.

- Amapola Rico Taco: This Mexican eatery in San Bernardino is housed in the building where Taco Bell was born.

- Lupe's #2: In a riposte to Rick Bayless, Jonathan Gold mentioned this stand's burrito as a crowning achievement in Cal-Mex cuisine.

- Border Grill: This Susan Feniger restaurant first brought traditional Mexican dishes to trendy Angelenos in 1985, and it's been doing so ever since.

- Rivera: Chef John Rivera Sedlar gives traditional Mexican ingredients, from mole to mescal, a contemporary spin at this pricy hotspot.

- Arturo's Puffy Taco: This Whittier eatery is the Texas-style puffy taco's last remaining SoCal outpost.

- Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Café: Arellano waxes rhapsodic about the Manuel's Special burrito served at this Boyle Heights restaurant.

- Oki Dog: The WeHo food stand's signature dish exemplifies the intersection between Mexican and kosher cuisine.

- Guelaguetza: This K-Town restaurant is credited with starting the craze for Oaxacan food, including one of its specialties, lime-chili grasshoppers.

- Lucy's Drive-in: This La Brea mainstay serves up Arellano's favorite burrito in the US, the chile relleno burrito.

- Alebrije's Grill: The author's home turf of Santa Ana is home to one of his top five Mexican dishes in the US, Alebrijes' taco acorazado.

- Kogi BBQ: This food truck was the first to hybridize Korean barbecue and tacos, sparking a nationwide trend.

The stories of these corporations are, more often than not, the stories of enterprising Americans who spotted a promising niche, applied a little capital and a lot of elbow grease, and wound up indelibly shaping our perception of Mexican cuisine - oftentimes in spite of their Anglo ancestry. Take Glen Bell, that Angeleno of yore who chugged Ray Kroc's Kool-Aid all the way to the bank: his taco shells, pre-fried in bulk, revolutionized what had once been a time-consuming meal to prepare, and the Taco Bell chain went on to serve countless Americans their first taste of "Mexican" food. ("Cinnamon twists," anyone?) Today, Arellano notes, the good folks at Taco Bell corporate line up at lunchtime to order from taco trucks, delightfully symbolizing how far our palates have come.

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Arellano's portrait of the intersection between regional Mexican cuisine and American fast food culture is, at times, incomplete. His regular allusions to white people and tastes paint our country as divided between Anglo and Latino culture, and one could be forgiven for wondering what happened to everyone else. And he only briefly tempers his lyrical description of the meticulous, labor-intensive tortilla-making process - a process that, thanks to bagged tortillas, is now forgone by almost everyone - with the acknowledgment that this arduous work was always the provenance of women. Yes, American home cooks worship at the altar of the pre-prepared, but economics and gender politics are the real forces behind our abandonment of made-from-scratch cuisine. When women leave behind homemaking, they also leave behind rising before dawn to grind corn for fresh tortillas, quite understandably.

Those quibbles aside, the question behind Arellano's quest remains: What makes food Mexican? Is it its origins, or is it whether Mexicans actually, you know, eat it? The Diana Kennedys of the world would take the former stance, but then, few people from either side of the border have had the benefit of an army of Mexican maids "who taught her Spanish and the secrets of regional cooking . . . [and] the specialties of their states." Tex-Mex, the once-beloved cuisine that today finds itself in decline, incorporates plenty of ingredients that would make Kennedy turn up her nose, including grated yellow cheese; then again, as one Tex-Mex pioneer opines in the book, "The people who are upset with Tex-Mex are upset with miscegenation. To the extent that we're comfortable with interethnic marriage, we're comfortable with mixed ethnic cuisine."

Which brings us, finally, to the Kogi BBQ truck. Ruminating on a century and a half of evolution, beginning with the chili queens of San Antonio - who would certainly have grounds for some sort of class-action lawsuit were they still around today - and ending with a tortilla stuffed with Korean barbecue, kimchi and salsa verde, Arellano sees something fundamentally American: "Always evolving, never stagnant, continually striving for something better, consistently delicious." Who wouldn't want to raise a frozen margarita (born in 1971 in Dallas, Texas) to that?

[Homepage image by Flickr user KayOne73]

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