Hey, New York City: Drop Your Mexican-Food Inferiority Complex, 'Cause You're All Right!
Tacos El ídolo near Cooper Square, home of fabulous poblano cuisine...but not tacos
Dear New York City:
I love you. No, really: I do. I try to get there at least once a year when business takes me back East. So whenever it comes to the inevitable conversation people have with me about your supposed lack of Mexican food, I gladly defend your honor. When people from Southern California complain that they can't find a good taco, burrito, or combo plate in New York, I remind them that the vast majority of mexicanos in NYC are from Puebla and Hidalgo--hence, its killer sonidero scene--and thus, you're more likely to find great tacos árabes, cemitas poblanas, pancita, and barbacoa than you will a good burrito or taco. In fact, I tell folks going New York way to stay away from any Mexican food that isn't from Puebla or Hidalgo, or they're going to be severely disappointed.
And yet...you won't listen. You keep trying to ape the highlights of Cal-Mex cuisine, insisting that your Mexican food scene is evolving, that it's nearly reached our heights...but it's not, nor will it ever.
At every chance, you try to assert your Mexican food as equal to that of Southern California with all the desperation of Martin Prince in The Simpsons screeching "PICK ME TEACHER! I'M EVER SO SMART!" Back in the 1990s, it was burritos; last decade, tequila bars. The latest stab at supposed respectability came yesterday, when the New York Times devoted multiple stories to tacos (full disclosure: I was quoted in one of them. Fuller discloser: the Gray Lady did a nice write-up of me last year), trying to argue that honest-to-goodness tacos have arrived in Gotham. Yeah, and good egg cream is now flowing from the spigots at In-n-Out. As my compa Bill Esparza so wonderfully put yesterday for Los Angeles, "your inferiority complex is wrapped in a flimsy, dry tortilla made from Maseca, and covered in ketchupy salsa. But it's cute that you keep trying over there."
It's beneath you, New York. So, please, please, please make peace with this fact, New York: your Mexican food (save for the poblano and hidalguense contributions) will never approach ours--never, never, NUNCA. And that's perfectly fine, because you can nevertheless stand tall with your contributions to Mexican food in this country.
I wish you would've bought my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, last year (or this year's paperback edition) so you could've already absorbed your own history, but let me give you a quick recap to make you stand proud:
*In 1886, when Los Angeles was still mostly dust, you hosted the nation's first pop-up Mexican restaurant at the original Madison Square Garden courtesy of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. On the menu: chile rellenos, picadillo, chile con carne (which eventually turned into the American chili), enchiladas, and tamales. Hell, Buffalo Bill even supplied mezcal, beating hipster mixologists by nearly 130 years.
*Craig Claiborne of the Times was one of America's fiercest proponent of Mexican food during his career, championing people like Diana Kennedy (who, despite her many faults, did show America there was more to Mexican food than the combo plate) and Zarela Martínez, the latter lady bringing alta cocina techniques to the White House. Similarly, James Beard heralded the work of Elena Zelayeta, the San Francisco blind lady who wrote Mexican cookbooks and became a national celebrity thanks to Beard.
*New York, believe it or not, can boast of hosting first documented, full-fledged taco truck: Tic-Taco, operated by two New York housewives in the city's Riverdale neighborhood in 1966. The truck was available for catering but didn't have a full-fledged kitchen, but it beat Los Angeles' King Taco (acknowledged by scholars as the first exclusively-taco lunch truck) by nearly a decade.
Postcard of Maldonado and his Xochitl in Midtown
I will fault Bill on just note: his cruel Maseca slur. Fact is, New York, you've had a tortillería making fresh masa since at least the 1930s thanks to Maldonado, who long ran one of the city's few Mexican restaurant, Xochitl, for decades until he passed away in the early 1980s. It was Maldonado who also first filed for a patent that would make fresh taco shells. I've already given enough away of my book, so won't get into Maldonado's story too much here, but he's a titan of Mexican food in this country, a oaxaqueño--and he's all yours, NYC.
I can go on, but I hope you've gotten my message. Stand by your Mexican food--it's fine. Your tacos might be good someday, but just let the scene evolve. Don't try to be us, and you'll be find. Know your history. And for the love of Christ, tell the pendejos over at Florencia 13 that their restaurant reflects everything that is wrong with NYC Mexican food--think about it!
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