In this episode of Squid Ink's Venn Food Diagrams, we study Mexican food. Why? Well, because deep down, every single person in this city has a soft spot for the stuff. Whether it be Americanized or not, fajitas or tacos de guisado, a taco is the archetypal Angeleno meal. In this city, a taco is easier to find than a burger, a burrito is a better bargain than a fast food combo and Mexican beer is still seen as exotic. Thus, it's time to dispel the greasy misconceptions of the first ethnic cuisine in the world to be added to the list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
Moral of the story: First, let's take a moment to identify that Mexican food in México is completely different than the Mexican food available in Los Angeles, well, for the most part. There is no such thing as combination platters in the motherland; you either fully commit to a taco or you fully commit to a chile relleno. Finally, a burrito is simply a rendition of taco where a thin flour tortilla is used instead of corn — no rice and beans.
Traditional Mexican food is not the salty gut bomb that it has long been stereotyped as being. It can be, of course, but so can any other cuisine when customized to the typical American palate.
Methodology: 100% unscientific data based on the contemporary status quo of “Mexican and Seafood” restaurant menus situated in gabacho-centric locations, as well as fanciful stabs at the cuisine by celebrity non-Mexican chefs. Also, anecdotes from first-generation, non-English-speaking Mexican elders and polls taken by monolingual Chicanos in community colleges citywide. Lastly, blog posts on Mexican food by Angeleno food bloggers and the views of one Mexican-American writer who found his identity through Mexican food.
Conclusion: There seems to be a common slant in the Angeleno perception of authentic Mexican food, one that leans toward the country's southern states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Yucatán. Festive foods such as mole and cochinita pibil made it to the “authentic” category in Los Angeles, but everyday foods eaten in México, such as quesadillas (made with corn tortillas) and whole beans of all varieties are overlooked. Mexican food is naturally rich in vegetables, legumes, herbs and spices — it is one of the few cultures in the world that has a whole-grain product as its staple. But this core knowledge of the cuisine got lost in translation and was replaced with the iconic Americanized Mexican food canon: “Mexican cheese blend,” guacamole and loads of sour cream.
For garnishing purposes, Cotija cheese is generally used. Fish tacos are common in coastal states such as Jalisco and Baja California but not so much anywhere else. Pan dulce is vital to the Mexican diet, acting as a continental breakfast with extra creamy instant coffee (saving the organic Oaxacan beans for American coffee snobs) or at bedtime with cold milk. Gelatina (sweetened gelatin with fruit pieces) is the most prevalent sweet treat in all of México, acting as an artistic canvas for Mexican moms on birthday parties but also as a comfort food if you are sick. Tortas are also recognized as “lonches” in Mexico, which is derived from the English language for the mealtime when the celebrated sandwich is eaten the most. By the way, the singular word for tamales is “tamal,” not “tamale” and yes we eat them — but only at Christmas!
Notes: This is a conditional list that consists of the average Mexican foods available in Los Angeles versus Mexican food in the country of México, it's subject to generational gaps and micro-regional exceptions. Though we live in a city where Mexican immigrants make up most of the foodservice workforce, there is not enough demand in the mainstream American market for those pre-Hispanic foods to thrive. Yet.
Foods that happened before the Spanish conquest are still daily staples to this day — like nopalitos (cactus), several varietals of corn and cacao. The good news is that there is a small revolution taking place at the moment to reclaim forgotten regional variants and pay homage to the aforementioned Pre-Hispanic ingredients.
For more in-depth information about the evolution of Mexican food in Los Angeles and America, check out Gustavo Arellano's latest book, Taco USA.
Follow Javier Cabral and his beaner coverage on Twitter at @theglutster.