In Defense of the Mexican-American Chef, Or: No One Hates on Mexicans Like Mexicans

Last week, our own Sarah Bennett wrote a cover story for our former sister paper, LA Weekly, about the ascendance of Mexican-American chefs in Southern California. It was a good piece that obviously focused on chefs in Los Angeles, hence leaving out OC's Carlos Salgado of Taco María, he of the James Beard nomination this year Jonathan Gold's silver medal last year as the second-best place to eat in Southern California—but I digress.

Sarah's article got good traction online, but also brought on the haters. These weren't Trumpbros or jealous restauranteurs, however, but the most persistent threat to successful Mexicans: Mexicans. And these aren't the self-hating, George P. Bush-style pendejos but rather self-proclaimed real Mexicans, the kind who have a checklist of what makes a “real” Mexican that they obtained from Cuauhtémoc (with an assist by Zapata) himself. They started whining on Twitter and Facebook (including, alas, my own ¡Ask a Mexican! fan page) immediately: What Mexican-American chefs cook isn't authentic. It's overpriced, and therefore for gabachos instead of Mexicans. They're gentrifiers. They're trying too hard to appeal to non-Mexicans and hence selling out Mexican culture. No taco is worth $3 even if the masa is from heirloom corn and doesn't use Maseca. They're not down with la causa. The food sucks and can't possibly compare to even the worst lonchera taco. Vendidos. Pochos. CHAVALAS.

Typical of this train of thought was one commenter on LA Weekly's Facebook page who saw a video and wrote, “Excuse me but traditional pozole is not made with lamb,it's made with pork neckbones,lamb?that's getting a little too gourmet.” (Actually, baboso, “traditional” pozole had no pork, because pork isn't indigenous to the Americas. But you knew that, right?).

I've covered food of all kinds in Orange County and Southern California for 15 years now. And seeing the negative reaction to the Mexican-Americans Sarah hailed reminded me of an ugly reality in the food world: no ethnic group is less supportive of innovation in their cuisine than Mexicans in the United States. And that's a pinche desgracia—a fucking shame. 

It's true! The luxe lonchera revolution has seen the children of immigrants push their mother cuisines to all sorts of levels, picking and choosing from other cultures to create dishes of dizzying heights, whether Roy Choi's Kogi sorcery or Ed Lee's Southern-fried pan-Asian grub. Regional American food keep seeing homegrown chefs refine the stuff they grew up on. African-American chefs play with soul food; Native American chefs are doing the same with their long-suppressed traditions, putting dishes that get praise from the rez to the Ritz.  It has led to soul-searching essays about cultural appropriation by brainy types, sure—meanwhile, customers largely don't give a damn as they weather hours-longs waits for everything from Halal Guys to hipster Asian churros, and proudly cheer on their peers on social media and beyond. 

The same applauding has happened in the past with Cuban-American and pan-Latino chefs. But there hasn't been that same level of support by Mexicans in the U.S. for Mexican-American chefs like Salgado, Soho Taco, Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, Thomas Ortega of Playa Amor and Amor y Tacos, and so many more. They do get Latino customers—but at nowhere near the level that they deserve. And their biggest fans? Not Mexican.

And that pisses me off. It's one thing to not patronize shitty food—we should never support a Mexican chef just because they're Mexican. But Mexican-American restauranteurs are cooking some of the most delicious, forward-thinking meals in Southern California right now—yet raza would rather hail Chalino and Chicharito as bigger heroes than them. Why? I get that some folks can't afford to regularly eat at the higher-end establishments these Mexican-American chefs inevitably run. I'd remind consumers, though, that cheap food is literally that—exploitative of some part, if not all, of the food chain, from the people tasked with picking or slaughtering the food to the dishwasher in the back—and that most of the acclaimed Mexican-American chefs believe in elevating our food system with higher wages and better-quality products that result in a higher bill.

No, the real sin here for yaktivists is the very act of Mexican-American chefs daring to reimagine Mexican food—nay, daring to reimagine Mexicans as deserving more than one-buck tacos. It's as if such chefs are expected to not aspire to be anything higher than a paletero, to hawk a humble, prepackaged product even if they have the opportunity and resources to do new things for a bigger audience and advance what we eat and who we are. Because Mexican food—like Mexicans—is sacrosanct and not expected to evolve, period.

This is an atavistic, ahistorical atrocity. Such a philosophy forgets what Mexican food fundamentally is—a mestizo, ever-progressing mishmash in which German and Czech beers (Bohemia, Negra Modela, et al), liquors distilled via European techniques (tequila and mezcal), Lebanese meat on a spit (al pastor), French pastries (most pan dulces), Peruvian seafood (ceviche) and American-style sodas (Mexican Coke, Jarritos) combine to create one of the most thrilling foodways on Earth. Wanting to encase Mexican food in amber ignores the current scene in Mexico proper: young chefs from Baja to Mexico City and beyond are taking Mexican food to levels never before seen. And those chefs respect the hell out of their pocho cousins: earlier this summer, Salgado cooked alongside Enrique Olvera, who just happens to be the one of the most important chefs in the Americas right now.

But none of this is good enough for the Mexican haters, who fulfill with every snide Facebook comment or yelp review that legendary Chicano Studies prophecy of crabs pulling down any crabs who try to climb out of the bucket. Shit, such anti-progress bullshit even extends to actual Mexican chefs in Southern California trying new things with classics. Take Danny Godinez of Anepalco's, whose cylinder-esque chilaquiles is one of the greatest dishes in Southern California but, when explained to pochos who haven't visited Mexico outside of their parent's ranchos for a week of puro pinche pari, are dismissed as fancy paisa bullshit. Shit, I've even heard such grumbling about birria de res masters Burritos La Palma: I've seen Mexicans walk away from their food truck, pissed off that the acclaimed lonchera doesn't sell carne asada tacos even though owner Albert Bañuelos is selling food straight from his family's restaurant in Jerez, Zacatecas. Somehow, birria de res burritos aren't “real” Mexican, while greasy-ass tacos are.

Fuck that.

Many Mexican-American chefs privately grouse about and even get stung by the lack of support by their own kind, but would never dare say publicly for fear of getting labeled a sell-out or uppity. I have no such qualms, so lemme say it for them here: Mexicans in the U.S.: There is nothing wrong with our food being “gourmet”—shit, it was gourmet before gourmet was a thing. There is nothing wrong with our youngsters pushing and prodding our culture forward while simultaneously respecting it. Support your fellow raza doing new, delicious things and pushing us to reimagine what “Mexican” is.  

Otherwise? You're no better than Donald Trump. Oh, and #fuckthehaters

Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly, ¡Ask a Mexican! columnist, and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. ¡Viva Jerez, Zacatecas, cabrones!

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