OC Weekly staff at work.
OC Weekly staff at work.

Mi Taco es su Taco: How Mexican Food Conquered America

I finally visited the snazzy corporate offices of the OC Weekly last week, to interview my editor, Gustavo "¡Ask a Mexican!" Arellano. Despite writing for years for the county's favorite alt-weekly, I'd conducted only an email relationship with the staff and editors. I arrived in person to tape my conversation with Arellano for Bibliocracy, the excellent literary arts radio program Wednesday nights on KPFK, and to gaze with envy on what seems like the exciting life of the newsroom. 

Arellano had postponed our appointment and, driving to OC Weekly headquarters, I discovered why.  He was on the radio, live, with

Patt Morrison

, everybody's favorite hat-wearing


afternoon host, whose show is consistently terrific despite that station's new slogan, "No rant, no slant." She was doing a segment on the new

U.S. Census

classifications of ethnicity or whatever is its called, by way of






. This enduring (exhausting) topic means a full-employment guarantee for Arellano who was, of course Patt's 

"Tamale" Tom T. meets The Mexican
"Tamale" Tom T. meets The Mexican
go-to guy for a thoughtful rant.  And, or course, he was reliably funny and smart and, when I arrived, was still on the phone, doing his "Ask a Mexican" deal for listeners to the local NPR station which, perhaps because they are into "ideas not ideology" need somebody to do some 'splainin to them about identity politics, history, culture, the fetishization of the Other, you know, like that.

Such is the life of the renaissance man from Anaheim, who has famously debated Mexican-hater Tom Tancredo, did his own afternoon drive-time show show on KPFK, taken on two racist cartoon characters, John and Ken, at KFI-AM 640, and whose latest work Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Arellano is the Dear Abby of cultural reconciliation, the Studs Terkel of food, the Ann Landers of the gustatory, the Saul Alinsky of the hole-in-the-wall.  I'll stop there with comparisons to writers who've taken the ball and run with it, creating their own niche, along with a devoted audience. (And I will also cop to being a proud member-supporter of both (!) local NPR affiliates.)

But enough about G.A.  This is my blog, already, so let's review my own typically weird relationship to Mexican food, with help of course from Taco USA. For me it starts like so many suburban white boys, with, yes, Taco Bell, founded by Glen Bell. Good thing his last name wasn't Smith or Barrel or Tonkovich.  I remember being treated by Mom to tacos at the very first one, in my hometown of Downey, also the hometown of Taco Bell, though it turns out I misremember its actual, real location. An easy mistake as the franchise sprang up quickly, and all over, in the early 1960s, with one nearer my parents' home than the original. And recall that there was a famous "original" McDonald's on Lakewood in Downey, not to mention the Jack in the Box on Imperial Highway and, yes, somewhere in North Downey (where the rich people lived), the home of the famous singing duo The Carpenters.

Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near...Downey?  Here, then, is the actual first Taco Bell. I love this photo. You can read Arellano's terrific history of the chain, and his analysis of what made it work, by way of Senor Bell co-opting a famous local Mexican taco prepared and sold by actual Mexican-Americans in San Bernardino, and selling hard-shell tacos like burgers, and making a mint. For history, politics, culture, this location has it all: sleeping Mexican statue a la Bob's "Big Boy", iconic if useless bell, Disneyesque interpretation of something resembling California Mission architecture. I don't remember the food, and haven't been back since.

Arellano doesn't recommend Taco Bell either, but he does argue an appreciation for the varieties of so-called Mexican food, pointing out that there is in fact no original or authentic, and tracing the permutations, abominations, celebrations and manifestations of interpretation (hey I'm a rapper (!)of the taco, burrito, taquito, and so on. Frozen margarita machine? Sure. French fries-stuffed burrito? Why not? Oki-dog? Yes, thanks. It's all here in this compendium of catholic taste and culinary inclusiveness.

I was especially taken with the story of Larry Cano, who started the once-wildly successful El Torito and bought the former Victor Hugo Inn, a French restaurant, transforming it into a Mexican seafood "fine dining" destination. Despite having lived near it for a decade myself, I somehow managed never to have eaten at the iconic if touristic Las Brisas, overlooking the cliffs of Laguna Beach. In fact, the closest I got to dining there was paddling my sea kayak a few hundred yards off the beach and hearing the restaurant's PA announcement across the water and kelp, and through the fog and the barking of California sea lions: "Jorgensen, party of ten." But each and every one of my relatives visiting Laguna ate there, and now I kind of wish I'd gone along.

El Torito, by the way, across the street from Irvine Medical Center, is where I ate when my wife was in the hospital, post-delivery of the little bibliofella. I'd never before dined there, eschewing it (snobbishly) as a place catering to mediocrity and which occasionally, as over at Fashion Island, blew up. I was pleasantly surprised and, like Arellano, whose tastes are generous and curious, have come to appreciate the chain as a reliable stop after, say, a long day driving down the 5 from Nor Cal. It's in Valencia, at the Magic Mountain Parkway off-ramp.

Arellano is a popularizer of history, and explainer and interpreter. His previous book, Orange County: A Personal History, is an essential personal telling of the weird and wonderful county in which we live, struggle, and eat, with especially good takes on drive-in religion and our charming John Birch Society roots. Besides teaching about food, and offering a requisite "best of" list, Taco USA advances an analysis of the happy irony of the "conquest," as suggested in its funny subtitle. No surprise that, but told with plenty of surprising details which I won't give away, in anecdotes and side-bars you will use to impress (or dismay) your friends (think: genesis of the Dorito chip).

Food as metaphor is, well, delicious, and Arellano's first course is a telling of his dinner with former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, the odious Republican nativist gasbag at, yes, a legendary Denver Mexican (!) restaurant, with the race-baiter enjoying a tamale plate before debating The Mexican on how to deport everybody. Perfect! You are what you eat. The personal is political. ¡Sí se puede!  Flour or corn?

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano, Scribner, 320 pp., $25

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 in Southern California. 

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