It's easy to embrace FX's atmospheric new series The Bridge as a darkly compelling crime drama. But the part we love, the part that makes The Bridge feel so exotic, is how vividly it captures life on the U.S.-Mexico border. Set in the neighboring towns of El Paso and Cuidad Juárez, The Bridge (like Bron/Broen the Swedish-Danish series that it is based on) involves a murder being solved in two languages while issues of identity and national pride bubble just below the surface.
In a way, as the series moves forward, the hunt for the killer becomes almost secondary to how a pair of odd couple cops — Diane Kruger plays Det. Sonya Cross of the El Paso PD and Demian Bechir's Marco Ruiz works for the Chihuahua state police — get to know and understand each other. The tension and politics between the two countries doesn't have to be referenced: For anyone who follows the news, it's the churning context of the show.
To get the delicate, complicated vibe of The Bridge down, novelist/Bridge co-executive producer Elwood Reid knew he'd have to try to figure out what made Juárez tick as well as how it related to El Paso. Along the way Reid was admonished by border guards (for, according to them, imperiling co-executive producer Meredith Stiehm by bringing her on one of his visits) and cajoled into taking Bridge star Diane Kruger on a similar but more clandestine journey. “She's very German. When she says she's going to do something, she's going to do it,” says Reid who was so sure he'd be fired if the studio discovered he'd taken her to Juárez that he didn't tell them until months later.
He also ate a lot of food. Recently, we caught up with Reid by phone to talk about the cuisine of Juárez, how he rates El Paso restaurants, and where he weighs in on the Sonya Cross problem.
Squid Ink: You spent a few days and nights in Ciudad Juárez. Talk to us about the state of Chihuahua's traditional cuisine.
Elwood Reid: It's beef-and-pork heavy. Not much fish and not a lot of chicken. From what I understand Ciudad Juárez is a weird hodge-podge because it's a town that people come to from all over Mexico to work in the factories. It doesn't even have that identity even from the locals. But the food there is amazing.
SI: What were some of the things you ate?
ER: They had a lot of weird ceviches, almost like sushi. A guy took me to one of the best restaurants in Juárez and ceviche was on the menu as ceviche/sushi. I thought, “I'm not going to order fish in Juárez. There's no ocean nearby.” But it was really, really good. It was tuna and some other kind of fish that they treated with chile. And giant volcanic bowls of cactus salsa and roasted onions and weird chunks of octopus. The moles were good too. The best place I went to was a taco place called Tacos Ajijiji. Pronounced eye-yeeeeeee! Amazing place.
SI: Highlights please.
ER: You walk in there and they have this sort of habanero slaw — cabbage and pickles and chiles. They bring the grill and meat out to your table. The most amazing queso fundido. They didn't have any fucking idea who Diane Kruger was. But the guy realized, “This is a really beautiful gringa,” and was so happy to see us, and he took us into the back of the restaurant — it was the cleanest, nicest kitchen I've ever been in — and he showed us all the food he was making. It was really simple — what we would call street food — but amazing.
SI: How does El Paso compare?
ER: What I find puzzling about El Paso is that it's eighty per cent Hispanic but unless people took me to the wrong places, you can find better Mexican food in Glendale. [A local] took me to a restaurant and said, “This is the best Mexican food.” It was a chain, and that is sad. They said, [excitedly] “You've got to try the fried jalapeño peppers.” It's like Chi Chi's food. Not good.
SI: When Bridge star Demian Bechir was 22, he famously moved to New York from Mexico City. He wanted to make it as an actor but instead he ended up working at Rosa Mexicano preparing guacamole tableside. There is no question here. We just like the dreamy image.
ER: I think he probably got by with charm. [laughs]
SI: Are you saying that you don't think Demian Bechir can make a proper guacamole?
ER: No, no, no! He knows how to cook. But if Demian Bechir is making you guacamole it's just going to taste a lot better than some guy who is bald and sweating. Also [chef and Rosa Mexicano co-founder Josefina Howard] is the real deal. I'll bet that his [guacamole] was highly regulated. I've not had it yet. He did bring me hot sauce one time. It was really, really, really good hot sauce in a little plastic container.
SI: Which brings us to a recent episode of The Bridge where Sonya has dinner at Marco's house and refuses to eat his wife's enchiladas. What could possibly be wrong with them?
ER: There's nothing wrong with her enchiladas. Sonya doesn't like Mexican food and has no social graces. It's like when you give a kid meatloaf and they don't want to eat it. She just says whatever she thinks out loud.
SI: The TV-watching world is divided on Sonya Cross. What do you say to people who think she's cold and bitchy?
ER: I knew going in that this was going to be a problem. First of all, I think its total bullshit that you have to like your characters. I only think you have to find them interesting. If you have watched the original you know that that woman cannot be described as likeable. You learn to like her because you understand how she operates.
SI: Meaning that you come to understand what it is like to be someone with Asperger's struggling with the everyday world?
ER: I always thought, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but what helped you understand the Sonya character in the original is the Marco character. As their relationship got better and got deeper, I thought as an audience member, I fell in love with her. I could see her trying to make this guy like her. You could see him liking her despite all of her rough edges and oddities. That's the growth of the show. If she started out likeable in the beginning, we'd have nowhere to go.
SI: In the original version, her Asperger's is never actually addressed. Where do you weigh in on the debate about identifying what is wrong with Sonya?
ER: Someone said that she should look at the camera and say she's autistic. That's the last thing in the world that someone who has autism or Asperger's wants to do. They want to try to pass. I tried in this series to make you understand what happened to Sonya. I don't think it makes her warm and fuzzy but at least it helps you understand that she grew up in a small town in Texas and that a lot of stuff happened to her and they protected her. She probably never was officially diagnosed with Asperger's.
SI: What else do Bridge fans want to know?
ER: They all want to know who the killer is.
SI: In last week's episode the investigation appeared close to resolution. That's an unusual tack for a show like this, no?
ER: When you're dangling something in front of me at a certain point it warps the focus of the show. You've seen the killer already. He's there. If you're waiting to plan everything for the big reveal people will normally be disappointed no matter what you do. The trick is to show them the killer, then once they find out who the killer is, then they go, “Holy shit!” and then you can take it to another level. The challenge as a writer is that once the audience knows who the killer is, to make him not mustache twirling, but really interesting.
SI: You're from working class Cleveland. What food in Los Angeles reminds you most of home?
ER: Oddly enough it's Korean food. They use a lot of cabbage and Cleveland is very eastern European and there are a lot of pickles. Everything is pickled in Cleveland. I grew up eating Croatian food, Lithuanian food, all that kind of stuff. Hungarian food. That's what we all ate. There's a heavy cabbage base and because of that I am obsessed with Korean food.
SI: There are so many great Korean restaurants in Los Angeles. What's your #1?
ER: Gam Ja Gol on Olympic. There's a giant pot they bring to your table. In it is a whole special potato — I don't know where they get them — and they've been cooking in this broth all day with giant pig back bones. Then they put these Korean greens in there and they cook it for 20 minutes while you sit there and drink. Then you eat this amazing stew communally.
SI: You are a formidable baker of sourdough bread. How did you get started?
ER: I baked for a while when I was a bouncer.
SI: Wait. Wait. You were a bouncer?
ER: I was a bouncer at a punk club in Michigan for years. If there was a job that I was born to do, bouncing was probably it.
SI: How so?
ER: I'm 6'6″ and I'm casually violent. I would always talk to people. I was very nice. I would always remind them, “You're drunk. I'm sober. I do this for a living. This will not end well for you.” That's how I met my wife actually: I beat somebody up for her.
SI: How does one go from bouncing to baking?
ER: I'd never really been knocked out and I got knocked out in a big bar brawl. We'd just had our first daughter. And I went home and my wife saw that the back of my head was all swollen up and she was like, “You have to quit.” But I wanted to work nights so I could write [during the day]. I took a job as a baker because they come to work about 10 o'clock so the bread is baked off by 5 or 6 a.m. I'd sit there and listen to public radio and bake all night. I like to be by myself.
SI: How often do you bake bread these days?
ER: It depends on the demand, but two to three times a week.
ER: I have five children plus two other kids [at home]. My daughter is a musician so we have a band living with us. Her name is Alaska Reid. Look her up. She is 16 and a real serious singer-songwriter. We run a bed-and-breakfast. It's weird. I was a short order cook for a while.
SI: Your kitchen output sounds impressive.
ER: We don't even think anything of it. There's always someone staying with us. It's a rolling party.
SI: You were a producer on Hawaii Five-0. What's the best thing you ate in the Aloha state?
ER: I went to a chicken fight there. They are technically illegal. You're sitting there with some of the biggest dealers in Hawaii and they're betting $10,000 on a fight. It's insane. It's mostly run by Filipinos and Portugese. It was all cooked by these really old ladies who didn't speak much English. The women show up early in the morning and they start cooking. So it's all basic home-cooking prepared at an illegal cock fight. I had this one stew which was … are you squeamish?
SI: Try us. How was the stew made?
ER: They take a goat and force feed it rice then they put a gallon of vinegar down its throat. Then they kill the goat. Then they roast it. The rice has absorbed all the vinegar and then it is cooked in the stomach, then they make a stew out of that with these really weird hot green peppers I've never seen before. Then they congeal pig blood and cut it up and put it in the stew. It sounds bad but it was amazing. I had some of the best food at these chicken fights but I didn't always know what it was. So I took pictures of it all and afterwards people would explain to me what was in it. I'd be like “Why is this rice so good?” and they'd say, “It was inside of a goat with vinegar.”
The Bridge airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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