'The very definition of Mexican food is a multicultural cuisine'

Beer, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, teriyaki bowls and Tostilocos are just a few of the foods that have bounced back and forth across Mexico's borders. "The very definition of Mexican food is a multicultural cuisine," says Gustavo Arellano, the man behind the syndicated "¡Ask a Mexican!" column and author of Taco USA.

Pati Jinich: What's going on with Mexican food on the West coast?

Gustavo Arellano
Gustavo Arellano

Gustavo Arellano: There are really two trends. You're seeing the rise of what I still call regional Mexican cuisine. In other words, la comida of states that historically didn't have an immigrant population to the U.S., but in the past 20 years really have. Now in Southern California, it's almost as common to be eating a tlayuda (a big, huge Oaxacan tortilla filled with quesillo and black bean paste) as it is burritos or tacos.

But on the other hand, you have the continued evolution, the multiculturalism of Mexican food as best exemplified by Korean tacos through the Kogi Korean barbecue truck.

PJ: Are there any new hybrids popping up?

GA: You’re always going to have hybrids depending on what part of the U.S. you live in. For instance, in Louisiana they’re selling alligator tacos and alligator tamales. This has actually been going back 15 to 20 years, even though historically Louisiana didn't have a significant Mexican population.

What's interesting to me at least, as someone who was born and raised in Southern California, you've always had this multiculturalism lurking in the background even though no one ever wanted to talk about it.

My favorite Mexican multicultural meal in Southern California is teriyaki bowls. Here, teriyaki has turned into almost exclusively a Mexican treat. Especially in Orange County, where there's a famous chain called Mos 2.

What you have is your regular teriyaki bowl with beef, chicken or pork, but it's cut really thin like a carne asada. Especially the beef -- you know Mexicans, we love our beef very, very thinly cut. The white rice is the same and the teriyaki sauce is the same. But instead of scallions, you have cebollitas: little green onions. Then the other condiment -- instead of sriracha, you have Tapatio Hot Sauce, a Mexican hot sauce that goes with teriyaki.

You always wash it down with an horchata because it's a rice-water drink that accentuates the sweetness of the beef and the teriyaki. It's the typical working-class meal here in Orange County.

PJ: We are turning that bowl into a taco bowl without a tortilla or with a tortilla?

GA: No tortilla. You just eat it like a straight-forward bowl.

It has gotten so popular now that of course you think of a teriyaki bowl as being a Japanese meal, but almost the only people who eat these teriyaki bowls are not Japanese or even Asians at all, but working-class white folks and Mexicanos.

PJ: What about the fish tacos and all the California-style tacos? I think it starts to get a little bit confusing when you think about Baja cuisine from Baja California. Do you think California and Baja California have dishes evolving at the same time?

GA: The best example of the collusion between Cal-Mex cuisine and Baja California cuisine -- the most famous example is the fish taco (although it came into the U.S. via Baja).

But the big thing is Tostilocos. You get a bag of Tostitos chips, it can also be Fritos or Doritos. Then, instead of opening it and putting on Tapatio Hot Sauce, you doctor them up. You put on some chicharrones, corn nuts, pickled cebollas (onions) and some rabanos (radishes).

The other interesting thing is what I think makes it Tostilocos: chamoy sauce.

PJ: Chamoy sauce is this spicy, sweet-and-sour sauce that has a little bit of tamarind or apricot sometimes. I used to eat that with crunchy peanuts when I was growing up.

GA: It's the ultimate umami flavor. It is jam-packed with flavor, slightly sour, slightly sweet. You put it on Tostilocos.

Tostitos is a very American company, but Tostilocos was born in Tijuana, Mexico, one of the capitals of street food in the world. It has been in Southern California for about 10 years, and it's slowly starting to spread across the country. My good friend John T. Edge from the Southern Foodways Alliance a couple of years ago did an article in The New York Times about Tostilocos. [Ed. note: John T. Edge explained Tostilocos on The Splendid Table.]

The purists will say that it's not really Mexican food, but it's Mexicanos who are making this cuisine and it's Mexicanos who are eating it.

PJ: It's Mexican street food.

What about the American foods that Mexicans have embraced?

GA: Mexico has always embraced foreign cuisine. The very definition of Mexican food is a multicultural cuisine. The beers that all Americans love -- Dos Equis, Tecate, Negra Modelo -- those were all German and Czech beers. It's called Bohemia not because an Aztec emperor was named Bohemia.

Even though we like to pretend we don't like the U.S. and that we are a purely Mexican nation, we have always embraced American food that has come our way. The best example of course is Mexican Coca-Cola. American hipsters love Mexican Coke because it's still made with sugar cane.

PJ: It's just a fact: Mexican Coca-Cola is much better than American Coca-Cola.

GA: I completely agree.

But my personal favorite food that Mexicanos have embraced is bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The hot dog, of course, is a quintessential American meal. Bacon is an obsession of Americans; Mexicanos, we like it too, a little bit.

Somewhere in the 1950s, at least according to legend, the bacon-wrapped hot dog was born in the Mexican state of Sonora. During the '80s and '90s it went up to Arizona to the Tucson region, then bounced back to Tijuana. For the past 15 to 20 years it has been going up north on Interstate 5 and east on Interstate 10, slowly conquering the U.S.

PJ: I'll just sit here and wait for them to come to Washington, D.C.

Is there a food that you are surprised Mexicans have abandoned, or a food that you have been shocked that hasn't been extremely popular in the U.S.?

GA: I'm absolutely shocked that America has yet to embrace the torta as the next big cult food.

PJ: I completely agree. That crispy, crunchy, incredibly delicious sandwich is like the perfect edible package.

GA: They have been in the U.S. for a good 20 to 30 years. I think the torta is going to be the next big trend. Already celebrity chefs are hawking their tortas at their restaurants. That's, I think, 15 years too late. It's so good. My God, I need a torta right now.

PJ: I agree. The next time we meet, it will have to be over a torta.

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