Gustavo Arellano on San Francisco Tamales, Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dogs, Taco Bell, Part 2

Categories: Talking Points

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According to this week's cover story, written by Gustavo Arellano, San Francisco played a surprising and key role in the spread of Mexican food across America. The story is an excerpt from Arellano's new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which comes out this week. Arellano's book celebrates the canned tamales, hard-shell tacos, and Mission burritos that Americans have fallen in love with, as well as the Mexican Americans who created them (whether credited or not).

SFoodie had a chance to speak to Arellano, who is also editor of the OC Weekly, several days ago. Part 1 of this interview, about San Francisco tamales and burritos, ran yesterday. In part 2, Arellano talks about tacos, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and that awful A word, "authenticity."

SFoodie: If tamales and chile con carne were the first Mexican foods to go mainstream here, what role do tacos play in the spread of Mexican food around America?

Arellano: The taco is a relatively late migrant. Mexicans have been putting something in a tortilla and eating it since the time of the Aztecs. But the first documented picture of a taco in the United States appeared in a 1914 cookbook of California Mexican-Spanish dishes by Bertha Haffner-Ginger. It's what we would know as a taco dorado. Tacos don't started getting mentioned in newspaper stories and put on menus until late 1920s. Soft tacos are really a dish of Central Mexico, and it wasn't until the Mexican revolution until people who ate tacos in their daily lives migrated to the United States.

Tacos first made it to the Southwest, of course. Then in the 1950s, once companies started looking for the next hamburger, interest in tacos explodes in earnest with Taco Bell and its imitators. That's a hardshell taco, of course. It wasn't until the 1980s that the taco that most of us call a taco became widespread, as more Mexican immigrants came into the country.

In this week's article, as well as your book, you talk a lot about the influence of white entrepreneurs like Robert Putnam [of the California Chicken Tamale Co.], [Taco Bell's] Glen Bell, and Steve Ells [of Chipotle]. If you're considering the spread of Mexican food in the United States, should we be looking at them as heroes?

Not heroes. But no one can deny their roles. The biggest acolytes of Mexican American food have never been Mexicans. It has been the Americans who taste something -- whether it's tequila, or hot sauce, or tamales or whatever -- and they became the ones who can raise founds to create a business, or open a restaurant where Anglos feel safe to eat.

Do I like the fact that Taco Bell's Glen Bell ripped his tacos off a restaurant in San Bernardiino that still exists, and yet didn't give them credit in his biography? Not at all. And to this day, Steve Ells won't admit which taqueria gave him the idea for Chipotle. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss their pioneering roles.

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Has Mexican American food [like Taco Bell tacos and California tamales] influenced the cooking that Mexican Americans do?

It completely has. This idea of authenticity is a grand myth. There is no such thing as "authentic" Mexican food. There are regional variations. And the burritos I eat down in Southern California are not different from the ones here. There are purists who say, they're not Mexican food anyway. But food is never static. The human mind is always going to look for ways to better it, to modify it in some way.

I just did a food review for the OC Weekly of a Mexico City-style restaurant specializing in tortas cubanas. It's a giant sandwich with pork leg, some ham, and melted yellow cheese. Yellow cheese is the boogyman of Mexican purists like Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. But who am I to tell a bunch of Chilangos [Mexico City residents] not to use yellow cheese on their torta?

The latest, greatest Mexican food trend is the bacon-wrapped hot dog. You may call them "street dogs," but they're ultimately Sonoran dogs. Wrapping hot dogs in bacon and putting on jalapeƱos and some pintos -- that started in Sonora in the 1950s, then skipped over to Tucson in the 1970s, moved down to Tijuana, and has been making its way up I-5 since. It's a wonderful thing. Korean tacos, pastrami burritos -- those are all Mexican in their own way.

So what do you think of the Dorito Taco Loco?

It has amazing potential -- as long as Taco Bell doesn't make it. Basically, what defeats the taco is that their beef is horrendous.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.


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