Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Gustavo Arellano, who in the last decade has risen from food editor at the O.C. Weekly in Orange County to investigative reporter at the paper and author of the popular syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a witty send-up of anti-Mexican stereotypes published in at least 38 media outlets, came to San Diego to speak at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park April 11. He was there to promote his latest book, Taco U.S.A.: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and his talk encompassed everything from the ways Anglo-Americans made big bucks appropriating Mexican recipes to the way creative cooks and restaurateurs keep inventing new variations on the old Mexican culinary themes.
“I’m going to start with my anecdote on Mexican food in San Diego,” he announced. “Two years ago, I spoke at the book fair at San Diego City College. Then we went across the street to a small Mexican place to eat. I saw the burritos on the menu and there was a listing for a ‘California Burrito,’ which I’d never seen before. I asked what was a California burrito, and they said, ‘You’ve never heard of it?’ They looked at me like I was from the Minuteman Project. Then they told me it’s a burrito with French fries in it, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ But I ordered it, and when I got the mixing of the meat, rice and French fries in it, it tasted great.”
What that did to him, Arellano said, was cure him of any residual notions of auténtico in Mexican food. He’s come to appreciate the vast regional variations of his ancestral homeland’s cuisine, not only in Mexico itself (a subject so vast he decided early on not even to try to cover the different kinds of Mexican food in Mexico) but throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. In the book he explodes some of the myths surrounding the origins of many popular “Mexican” dishes — Doritos (corn chips with cheese), for example, were actually invented in Disneyland as a way of using leftover scraps of tortillas — and tells a wide variety of stories.
Arellano traced the proliferation of San Diego taco shops named with the suffix “-berto’s” to one Roberto Robledo, a bracero (Mexican guest worker) who settled in San Ysidro in 1957, started a taco stand, built a chain and then disaffiliated some of his relatives from his chain because he didn’t think they were using fresh enough ingredients. Roberto Robledo died well before Arellano started his research, but Arellano was able to interview his son Reinaldo, who told him that the family launched not only Roberto’s and the rival chain Alberto’s but also Lolita’s, where Reinaldo’s sisters sold their own invention: a “2-in-1 burrito” with tortillas inside as well as outside.
Taco U.S.A. is a fun book, livened up by Arellano’s sprightly prose style, but it’s also full of stories of cultural imperialism, notably in the early chapters on how Mexican (and, later, African-American) street vendors who sold tamales were put out of business and replaced by white entrepreneurs selling cleaned-up versions in sit-down restaurants at higher prices. (African-American jazz and blues songs like Freddie Keppard’s “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” and Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot” immortalize the Black tamale vendors of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.)
Among his most grimly ironic stories was how Christine Sterling, a socialite who had relocated from Northern California to Los Angeles, learned that the L.A. city fathers were planning to tear down the historic Mexican buildings around Olvera Street. She intervened and saved them from destruction, then transformed them into her own romanticized image of “Old Mexico,” with waiters dressed in costumes supposedly resembling the clothes worn by the grandees of Spanish Mexico. Among the innovations of Olvera Street — which Arellano basically describes as a theme park long before theme parks were “in” — was the taquito, a rolled-up tortilla filled with meat and guacamole invented there in 1934 and now a standard “Mexican” dish.
According to Arellano, Mexican dishes have not only conquered El Norte but are marching across the world, seducing palates in places as far removed from Norteamericano as Australia and Japan. “There’s no stopping Mexicans and no stopping Mexican food,” he said at the end of his talk. “It’s the manifest destiny of good taste.”