Recently, a new-ish Mexican restaurant in San Francisco (surprisingly NOT in the ever-gentrifying Mission District) started a firestorm for two distinct reasons--one indefensible, the other almost defensible. They initially called themselves Bandidos, which got yaktivists rightfully up in arms (ironically enough) over the stereotypical name. But what got people even más encabronados was that Bandidos planned to charge $12 for two tacos--oh, did that one piss people off, especially my pal, Bordertown colleague, and fellow zacatecano Lalo Alcaraz (check out this comic strip of his, then subscribe to his Twitter feed and LAUGH).
Sure, there was outrage that hipsters would dare charge other people that much money for tacos that don't seem particularly remarkable (more on that in a bit). But I think most folks were offended at the very idea that tacos could be expensive, because mainstream thought has deemed that Mexican food should always be cheap and affordable as a reflection of Mexicans, who of course are universally humble and poor. A college professor friend of mine said as much when he posted on Facebook that folks should "support MEXICAN establishments that serve the people at prices made for the people. In other words, if regular gente are priced out, avoid."
My response: "At this point, that's virtually every restaurant except Del Taco...$1 for a taco? TOO MUCH."
And that's why, gentle cabrones, $12 for two tacos is not just not unreasonable--it's the future, unless we do something about it.
I remember the days when big, juicy tacos could be found for a bit over 50 cents, and the discount tacos came four for a dollar--was that 20 years ago? Even 15? The years sure pass by...anyhoo, those were beautiful days, days that solidified the taco's position as the most iconic of Mexican meals in the United States. You could be a starving student, put down a five-spot, and eat like a king.
But the sad fact is that those days are done and will never return. Taco rates everywhere are escalating at a pace that's making them not worth the price, regardless of setting. It's impossible nowadays to find non-fast-food places where a single taco is under a dollar--and most of the cheapest tacos available are small and pathetic. Even at the most raza places, families are increasingly getting outpriced; at a local, beloved taco chain, for instance, their puny tacos nowadays run about $1.23 or so--and you need five of those just to make a dent in your panza. Is it any wonder that starving students have turned over the past decade to burritos, which, while more expensive, are at least massive enough to justify their precio?
Why are tacos getting so expensive? Taco inflation, caused by an ever-increasing rise of labor and food prices, none more affected than the meats and corn that make up the bulk of taco sales. The rising costs means restaurants get cheaper ingredients while still having to increase the pesos on their meals, meaning us consumers lose again and again. It's gotten to the point that I rarely order tacos anymore wherever I go--and I got a pinche expense account for this infernal blog.
What will save us from further taco inflation? Expensive tacos.
Perversely enough, the more expensive the taco nowadays, the more likely it's worth the price. The tacos at Taco Maria start at $13-but for that price, you get big, thick, handmade tortillas from non-GMO masa, and enough taco fillings (all organic, fair trade stuff) to make at least three filling tacos; the whole experience, dollar for dollar, is almost par to the King Taco course. Soho Taco's legendary taquizas can get pricey, but the quality of everything, from the meats to the masa to the service even the pico de gallo, is impeccable, and owner Gabriel Zambrano makes sure to buy from reputable sources, unlike most taqueros. For both Taco Maria and Soho, you can taste the extra cost, because these are tacos with vibrancy like few others. Totally worth it.
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The $12 tacos served by Bandidos (and actually, those $12 are now $10 after the uproar--and they now call themselves Hecho) don't seem to be worth it, but only because they make no claim to superior ingredients. On the other hand, I once ate $16 tacos (two came with the order) at a no-longer-open place, but only because everything on the taco had a good story, from grassfed beef to organic tomatoes picked by farmworkers who earned a living wage. Was it expensive? Very. Was it worth it? Given that everything in that taco led to a better world--especially my panza, damn straight.
Of course, high prices in and of themselves don't justify a taco's worth. The recent luxe lonchera craze has seen charlatans charge people way too much just 'cause they put kimchi or duck into a taco, kimchi and duck bought from the same mass producers where most restauranteurs buy their crap. But if you see a super-expensive taco with a great provenance, buy it: not only are you supporting the good fight against mass consumerism and the Sysco-fication of the planet, but you most likely will eat the tacos of your lives. Buy crappy tacos, you perpetuate taco inflation; buy better tacos, you support a better system and and buying those tacos means prices for quality ingredients can eventually go down.You just don't buy a clunker when you shop for a car or home, so do the same with your tacos. In other words, get thee to Taco María, cabrones!