When Tacos Become More
I grew up eating tacos. It was (and still is) one of the greatest pleasures to have abuela invite me over for tacos. Or caldo. Or fideo. Or homemade flour tortillas.
It's interesting though. Ten years ago, even five years ago there was no buzz around tacos like there is today. Yes, there were authentic taquerias, the ones mainly Mexican people knew about, but not nearly as many as there are today, let alone the trendy Mexican-inspired taquerias with fancy margaritas and chips and queso, which don't get me wrong, I frequent often.
In a 2017 New York Times article, 'Modern Mexican' Steps Into the Spotlight, author Julia Moskin poses the question, "How did Mexican food, often viewed by those beyond the country’s borders as cheap, dull and heavy, move to being seen as artful, fresh and fascinating?"
I started doing some research on Mexican cuisine, world-renowned Mexican chefs, fine-dining Mexican restaurants, and ultimately trying to figure out why now Mexican food is becoming so hip, when it seems that of the United States lacks empathy and appreciation for the country that give it guacamole and not Taco Bell.
Contrary to much belief, Mexican food is not just tacos and the chips and queso we often assume it to be, and Mexican chefs have been creating contemporary plates influenced by deep Mexican traditions for a long time, we just haven’t noticed. In 2000 world-renowned Mexican Chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City, ranked this year as the 13th best restaurant in the world, and home to Mole Madre, a mole that has aged for more than 1500 days. Talk about history on a plate. Labeled as ‘Mexican haute cuisine', Pujol claims that its dishes are rooted in Mexican technique and culture, but take on influences from everywhere. These chefs are now bringing their innovative restaurants to the U.S. In 2014, Olvera opened Cosme in NYC, which serves "contemporary, Mexican-influenced cuisine." There are numerous chefs expanding upon what we know as traditional Mexican food and doing unique, innovative things that truly highlight what real Mexican food is all about - simple, fresh ingredients, and complex flavors.
A 2016 article in the Atlantic, Mexican Food Enters the Fine-Dining Realm, discusses why Mexican chefs are breaking away from the traditional taco. In the article Chef Hugo Ortega notes, “people think tacos are everything. It’s just one little element [of Mexican cuisine] that got to be popular.” While tacos are a staple in Mexican cooking, there is so much more, and people are now recognizing that and chefs are delivering. Whether that is through traditional Mexican dishes or more contemporary creations that highlight the flavors of Mexico.
In the same article the author, Emily Deruy, linked the phenomenon of a sudden interest in Mexican cuisine to immigration patterns. Many immigrants have come to the U.S. making food, often cheap, for their neighbors from their home country. Remember those taquerias I would eat at growing up? That sort of thing. Chinese and Italian restaurants, even fine-dining, have been established for years most likely because of their early immigration (early 1900s) to the U.S. In 1980 there were 2,199,200 Mexican immigrants in the United States, compared to 11,714,500 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and found at the Migration Policy Institute’s website.
It just seems as though it’s taken until recent years for Mexican food in many capacities to become more welcomed in mainstream food culture.
With the entrance of Mexican food into the mainstream, whether that be a traditional taco or a fine-dining dish, it has also brought up questions regarding authenticity and appropriation. What truly is authentic versus traditional? Does the answer come with what food is deemed traditional vs. non-traditional? Or maybe with who is cooking? That could be an entirely separate series of blog posts, however seems pretty subjective.
While there is no concise answer, I will say that I’m happy people are getting into Mexican or Mexican-esque food, whether that means your eating it or creating it. People and chefs of all different backgrounds make ethnic foods that don't match their own, and that's okay. Think of all of the chefs around the world creating ‘elevated’ or experimental Italian or French dishes. And I suppose if a non-Mexican wanted to open up a traditional taqueria, that would be okay too.
In my mind, I'm happy, ecstatic, (maybe sometimes annoyed), that people are now realizing the complexity and mouthwatering flavor found in food I've been eating since I could open my mouth. Get a mango and sprinkle some Tajín and you'll begin to understand what I mean by simple, fresh, and literally mouthwatering. Mexican food is not gobs of cheese and queso and chips and "things" with crunchy shells and ground beef. Mexican food is fresh, filled with veggies and beans, homemade corn tortillas, chiles, and salsas and moles with so much flavor and complexity. The fact that people want to experience in that, and even use their creativity to expand upon traditional Mexican cuisine (even if it does mean a little queso), makes me pleased that they can die happier.
A $7 taco or a $30 upscale plate doesn't detract from the perhaps, more traditional $2 taqueria tacos I've been eating for the last 23 years. And I don’t think it ever will. The innovation, creativity, and choice we now have in the realm of Mexican cuisine represents something great. It celebrates the rich history of Mexican culture and creativity of its food. Looking at other ethnic restaurants, the influx in their contemporary counterparts has never really detracted from the authentic abuela-type shops around.
It sucks that food often has to be the bridge to cultural awareness or curiosity, but without it, we wouldn't be this far. No matter your opinion on ethnic foods, authenticity, or the issue of appropriation, the immersion of Mexican food and culture into this new space represents a slight turn in mentality and maybe even openness. In a more global world than ever before, that's what really counts.
The first time I hung out with my now boyfriend we went to my now favorite taqueria in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Taqueria San Jose.
"To make a great taco, it's all about the meat. Wait, the meat and the tortilla."
I realized how dumb that sounded and he reminded me that a taco primarily is meat and a tortilla. There are so few ingredients in a classic, authentic taco, but these two ingredients (with the addition of some cilantro, onion, salsa, and lime juice) are cooked to such perfection you honestly can't say what's more important.
You can't have a great taco without good meat and you can't have a great taco without a good tortilla. Two good things make one great thing that even I can’t seem to order the importance of the ingredients. The complexity and simplicity of a taco, like many other foods (i.e. noodles and butter or cacio e pepe) perplexes me, yet makes all the sense in the world. Everything else--the glam--just adds to the experience, the creativity, the ambiance. And I'm more than happy to be a part of that and ultimately have the choice. Not only the choice to eat traditional or non-traditional Mexican food, but the actual availability of it here in my community.
But nothing can ever take away from the meat and the tortilla.