Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $25.00, 320 pages)
“Americans: unite under Mexican food, just like your ancestors, just like your descendants! It doesn’t matter your dish choice: it’ll sometimes be derided, sometimes mysterious, oftentimes scorching, and not always good, but always, always eaten. A lot.”
I can guarantee you one thing about this Mexican food survey book by the finely-named Gustavo Arellano. Read it and you will feel… hungry! Of course, it’s probably politically and factually correct to say that this account is about Mexican-American food, although Arellano does often clarify which foods had their creation in Mexico – before being adopted north of the border – versus those foods that are known as Mexican but are purely American/Mexican-American creations.
A trip through the table of contents shows the order in which the food topics are discussed. They are: the burrito, tacos, enchiladas, Mexican cookbooks written by Anglos, the late Southwestern cuisine, the virtually doomed and much-attacked world of Tex-Mex food, Mexicans cooking food for other Mexicans (really?), the arrival of Mexican food in our supermarkets, the tortilla, salsa and tequila. There’s also a bonus chapter on the five greatest Mexican meals served in the U.S.; at least it’s one man’s humble listing of the meals that are “just bueno.”
“Mexican food had arrived to wow customers, to save them from a bland life, as it did for their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Again. Like last time – and the time before that.”
The author has great fun in praising the heroes of the Mexican-American food movement (or revolution, if you prefer), such as Larry Cano who developed the El Torito chain of restaurants. He even praises Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill (the second-largest Mexican food chain in the U.S.), and Glenn Bell, the founder of the ubiquitous Taco Bell food stops. If you’ve ever wondered where Bell got the recipes for his tacos, the answer is found in Taco USA – and it happens to be a hole-in-the-wall taco shop in San Bernardino, California.
On the flip side, Gustavo names names when it comes to finding villains. Two of them are Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy who have repeatedly called out for “authentic” Mexican food while allegedly – by Gustavo’s account and others – being somewhat less than authentic themselves. And then there’s Tex-Mex:
“Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex. A hyphen separates two cultures that faced off in blood but are forever linked around the world. Each exists on its own, each is fine separate from the other, but together the phrase now conjures up something almost universal: culinary disgust.”
On this, we shall leave the details up to the reader – and an opinion on this much-appreciated or highly-despised cuisine.
What Arellano does quite well is to present us with the scope of the popularity of Mexican food in this country. For example, you may have heard that more salsa is sold than ketchup, but were you aware that the sale of tortillas is now an $8 billion a year industry? It’s mind-boggling, and thanks to Taco USA the facts are now literally on the dining table.
“Is the (Sonora) hot dog truly Mexican? Who cares? In Tucson, the birthplace of Linda Ronstadt, Americans became Mexicans long ago; it’s now the rest of the country that’s finally catching up.”
Yes, Gustavo’s listing of the five best Mexican meals in the U.S. includes the bean-wrapped Sonora hot dog that’s served only at El Guerro Canelo in Tucson, Arizona. And while it’s not a bad list (which includes stops in Oklahoma, Arizona, Southern California, Texas, and Colorado), I think he missed one place that I’ll gladly take him to the next time he’s in the Capitol City of California – which is Emma’s Taco House in West Sacramento. It’s been in business at the same location since 1953, and there’s a reason why this is true. It is one of the most muy bueno taco houses in all of Taco USA! And as the fans of Emma’s like to say, if you don’t like “real” Mexican food, there’s a Taco Bell right down the street!
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Taco USA is available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download. Gustavo Arellano is also the author of Ask a Mexican! and Orange County: A Personal History.
Note: Gustavo would and does argue in Taco USA that ALL Mexican/Mexican-American food is “real” and “authentic”; probably as real as “Chicken Nuggets” from McDonald’s. (Which part of the chicken does the nugget come from?)