Reviewing “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Reading from his new book, Orange County: A Personal History.

A couple weeks ago I RSVP’ed to attend a book talk and signing to coincide with the release of Gustavo Arellano’s new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at UCLA. I was looking forward to it as I enjoyed Gustavo’s two previous books (Ask A Mexican and Orange County: A Personal History) and couldn’t wait to read the results of his research on the popularity of Mexican food across the US. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and he’d been dropping hints about his research and trips on both and in articles on the OC Weekly. Plus, is there any topic better than Mexican food and drink?

The quietness of El Cargadero makes me think of Rulfo's Comala

Anyway, I also like Gustavo. He’s a funny, entertaining and opinionated writer covering topics a lot of other journalists ignore. I’m also a fan because we share similar roots. Our mothers were both born in El Cargadero, a pueblito outside of Jerez, Zacatecas. His more autobiographical books felt like I was reading my own familiy’s history.

I never went to the book signing. That afternoon, my Dodger loyalty trumped my Cargaderense roots and pride. Who says Mexican immigrants and their children don’t acculturate or assimilate? Sorry, Gustavo. I ditched your reading but I did buy and read Taco USA. I went the e-book route since I didn’t want to wait for it to ship and didn’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Review


Taco USA is a must read and worth the money you would have spent on dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant or a couple of meals from your favorite taco truck. I read slowly, wanting to savor — sorry for the pun — the descriptions of a lot of new-to-me takes on Mexican food outside of Southern California. I was also disgusted by some of the many culinary crimes committed in the name of making Mexican food palatable to white Americans’ taste (see: canned tortillas… guácala!).

I always start with 4 tacos when I go to Martha and Emilio's
Back to the book, the first two thirds are a chronological history of Mexican food in the US. Gustavo recounts the heyday of chili queens in Santa Fe and tamale men from San Francisco to Chicago at the turn of the century. Even back then, ambulantes (street vendors) were a big part of the Mexican food culture, or what passed as Mexican food. I had no clue why cartoon characters crowed about “hot tamaleeees!” Now I know. Other things I learned: the taco (hard, fried style not the ones above) didn’t become popular nationwide until the 1950s-60s; why non-Mexicans are the most popular Mexican food writers and chefs; the origin of nachos; and why chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas is a misnomer.

Tepeyac's Manuel Special

My favorite chapters were about the burrito and Mexican food cooked by and for Mexican people. I attribute that to my LA and California bias. Gustavo begins the chapter on the burrito by describing the Manuel’s Special giant burrito at El Tepeyac Café in Boyle Heights (East LA, for the LA outsiders).

El Tepeyac Café

I have a particular affinity for El Tepeyac even though a lot of people don’t think the food is all that great. My grandparents, Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni used to live right around the corner from El Tepeyac. Literally. During parties, we used to peek over the wall into the El Tepeyac parking lot. My parents met when they were part of the youth group at Assumption Church, which is across the street from El Tepeyac. It’s where they got married. My siblings and I were baptized there and several other aunts and uncles married there. My roots run deep.

how to make burritos - step 5: enjoy (or save in baggies for lunch the next day)

I started the burrito chapter, “What took the burrito so long to become popular”, with warm fuzzies. And then Gustavo went on to the Mission style burritos in San Francisco (my favorite burritos) and how they inspired chains like Chipotle. I’ve had two Chipotle burritos, both bought by someone else. I don’t get the hype. He also answered a baffling question about the origin of San Diego -berto suffixed chain restaurants. My favorite is the Adalberto’s by my tío Beto’s house in Chula Vista. Their carne asada nachos are amazing.

Chilaquiles at la Juquila (they made me cry)

Gustavo’s chapter on the rise of Mexican food made by and for Mexicans made me hungry and sad that my favorite Mexican restaurant on the westside shut down a couple years ago. I was introduced to Oaxacan food in the late ‘90s by friends and quickly grew to love their moles, enchiladas and chilaquiles. I didn’t know at the time that Oaxacan restaurants were still relatively new in LA. The westside outpost of La Guelaguetza closed down recently. It bummed me out. That was my go-to spot for taking friends from out-of-town for Mexican food they couldn’t get elsewhere. Sadly, I never tried the chapulines (grasshoppers).

Tapatío at a Cuban restaurant

The latter third of Taco USA focuses on Mexican food products and drinks in US stores. This was less interesting to me, except when Gustavo discussed the history of brands like salsa El Tapatio. I was used to seeing it on the table at home, but was surprised when I started to see it as a condiment in restaurants or as a flavor for Doritos. I also got confused by all the entrepreneurs making money off Americans’ tastes for tortillas, salsa, tequila and more.

My only criticism is that Gustavo doesn’t discuss one popular critique or fear of Mexican food: it’s unhealthy and fattening. He does discuss the xenophobic fears, e.g., Mexican food is dirty, too spicy, or it’s going to cause some unfortunate digestive issues. This one got to me when I was losing weight and would read “Going out for Mexican, help!” on the Weight Watchers message boards as if Mexican food needed to be feared. Yes, I know, there are a lot of popular Mexican dishes that are fried and/or very cheesy. I love some of those, but it’s just one type of Mexican food. I lost a bunch of weight without ever giving up my beloved tortillas, (both corn and flour, not the cardboard like whole wheat kind either), tortas and tamales.

A life without tortillas would just be sad. I think Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, said it best:

What value is a life without booze and Mexican food?

Gustavo is currently on a media and book tour. Check out his schedule here. For more on the book, you can find a short interview with Arellano on LA Bloga and an excerpt in the LA Weekly. He also was on NPR this week discussing the rise of tacos and the origin of Taco Bell.

Edited: The NYT reviewed Taco USA in the Dining & Wine section this week. It’s a great review and gives you more of an overview of the book and about Gustavo’s career as a food critic and expert on all things Mexican American. If you haven’t exceeded your 10 pages/month limit, go read it.

8 thoughts on “Reviewing “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

  1. hippierunner

    Can’t wait to read that book! The article in the LA Times made me so hungry though, so I will definitely need to read it over a plate of tacos…

    Good point you bring up about how Mexican food is sometimes perceived as unhealthy. I feel like that bad rep comes from the Americanization of it (more cheese, bigger portions, etc.), which is frustrating, right?

    Reply
  2. GeekGirl

    I might need to pick up this book. Mexican food is my absolute favorite. Sadly, since moving to South Florida I haven’t had great Mexican food. I’m actually trying out a new Mexican place today at lunch that’s supposed to be “authentic”.

    Also, we finally got a Chipotle here and I was horribly unimpressed. I just don’t get it at all.

    Reply
  3. Josie @ happycorredora.com

    Great review. I had not heard of the book although I always enjoy reading the ‘Ask a Mexican’ column and his cheeky responses to some ‘gabacho’ :) Maybe it hasn’t been promoted on the East coast yet?

    Very interested in reading. Americans certainly love Mexican food. It is not big at all in Australia but lots of people there have the same thoughts “too spicy” “too fatty”.

    I can understand the people worried about going to a Mexican restaurant for weight reasons. 1) A lot of the US food is quite fatty and covered in cheese and cream etc whereas the real stuff in Mexican is fresh salsa, cilantro etc. 2) Everything is so tempting that even though technically salads etc are available, they would much rather get the chips and quesadillas.

    Looking forward to checking out the book :)

    Reply
    1. cindylu Post author

      You know what’s funny? When I visited Sydney in 1994, I had my host family take me to a Mexican restaurant. It was called Montezuma’s; I think I read about it in an in-flight magazine. I don’t remember if the food was any good, probably not. I was there for 10 days and already needed my tortillas. The book and Gustavo were featured in a great piece in the NYT food section this week.

      Reply
  4. Maegan Ortiz

    Thanks for this review. I’m going to add it to my to read list. As I prepare for move out to LA I feel like I have so much learn in terms of food even though here in NYC we have large Mexican communities with authentic food in hoods like Corona, Queens. It would be interesting to see how Mexican food differs acrocc migrant communities in the US. And yeah el Tepayac is on my to go to list once I’m there full time.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>