October 29, 2010 | 1:06pm
Maybe you have some preconceived notion of what it would be like to work in the same office as Gustavo Arellano. Maybe you imagined that whenever you announce you're leaving the country for a vacation, Gustavo says something like, "Be sure to try the Mexican food there!"
Maybe everything you thought was right.
So yes, during a two-week trip to Japan, Gustavo's directive was in the back of my head. Which led me to a place called El Pancho
in Osaka. My expat friends in the region said it was their go-to place for Mexican. What did I learn about Mexican food in Japan?
1. It's expensive
Even if it weren't for the awful dollar-to-yen exchange rate, Japan is expensive. So, it's not surprising that a cuisine as rare as Mexican would be super-expensive, though the price tag was still a shock given Gustavo's no-true-taco-should-cost-more-than-a-buck maxim. Two beef tacos clocked in at 840 yen, which, Google says at press time, is $9.85. A burrito combo meal? $20.99.
2. It's stereotype-y
Screengrab from El Pancho website...
Did I spot images of guys in giant sombreros, sleeping under a saguaro? I did. El Pancho actually occupied a pretty cool space above ground level in a Shinsaibashi skyscraper, a dimly-lit, cantina-of-comic-books room. There are Mexican flags, maracas, and, more than anything, lots of cactus-related paraphernalia. All of this may be played out to our eyes, but keep in mind this kind of imagery is awfully foreign in Japan. One lady we dined with--not Japanese but not American--asked what a taco actually was. We're spoiled in OC.
3. It's Japanized
I half-expected nothing but corn-and-mayonnaise burritos and pickled ginger tacos from Japanese chefs taking on Mexican food, but instead the differences with the homeland's--or at least Southern California's--cuisine were more subtle. The chips and salsa portion was dinky, a far cry from the hefty and constantly replenished baskets of obese America. The burrito combo came with not beans and rice but rather beans, a quesadilla, a taquito, grainy mashed potatos and yes, corn. Rice was nowhere to be seen on the plate, which is a shock given that Japan loves its rice--white rice.
4. Weirdness aside, it's okay
A week-and-a-half into the trip, I was craving the flavors so abundant here in OC: cheese, fat, tortilla, heat. Japanese food isn't heavy on those things. And El Pancho mostly delivered the soul-satisfyingness we want from Mexican food.