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Taco USA

From Tamale Kings and Chili Queens to frozen margaritas and Taco Bell. We look at the rise of Mexican food in the USA. The whole enchilada.

Diners eat at a Taco Bell in San Jose, California. (AP)

Diners eat at a Taco Bell in San Jose, California. (AP)

It may be hard to believe these days, when it seems there’s a Mexican food outlet on every corner, but there was a time not so very long ago when most Americans had no idea what a burrito was.  When tacos were exotic.  When mole was a mystery.  Salsa  was a dance.

Today, America is Mexican food country.  From the early days of “chili queens” who cooked up vats of “con carne” in Texas, to “tamale men” who traveled the country, Mexican food has taken over.

This hour, On Point:  we talk with Gustavo Arellano about how Mexican food conquered America.  The whole enchilada.

-Tom Ashbrook


Gustavo Arellano, editor-in-chief of the OC Weekly, where he writes the “¡Ask a Mexican!” column.  His new book is “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”

Illiana de la Vega, chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, where she is a specialist in Mexican and Latin Cuisines. Former chef and owner at El Naranjo, an internationally acclaimed restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico specializing in Southern Mexican cuisine, and at El Naranjo Mobile, a food truck in Austin, Texas which the Food Network called the “best Mexican restaurant in Austin.”

From Tom’s Reading List

LA Weekly You might suspect Gustavo Arellano, the brain and wit behind the popular syndicated and OC Weekly column ¡Ask a Mexican!, as one of those Mexican food sticklers who bristles at ideas of yellow nacho cheese, the chimichonga, the chicken fajita pita, enchilada combination plates and Taco Bell’s 50th anniversary festivities. Yes, Arellano admits to having once been fanatical about authenticity. But he’s reformed.

Food Network Acclaimed chef Iliana de la Vega serves up authentic Oaxacan cuisine at her El Naranjo mobile trailer in Austin, Texas.

Excerpt: “Taco USA”

[Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.]

Excerpted from
TACO USA by Gustavo Arellano. Copyright © 2012 by Gustavo Arellano.
Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster,


“Hot Tamale Man” — Arthur Collins

“La Malagueña” — Miguel Aceves Mejia

“La Cumbia del Mole” — Lila Downs


Real Mexican Recipes by Iliana de la Vega

“Salsa Verde con Aguacate” **
Serves 1½ cups

  • 2 chile jalapeños or to taste, stems removed
  • 10 tomatillos, husks removed, washed and quartered
  • 1 medium garlic clove
  • 1 slice of a white onion
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro including soft stems
  • 1 small avocado, peeled and seed removed
  • salt to taste
  1. Place all ingredients in a blender jar, add salt to taste, blend until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing into the sauce, and refrigerate.

“Salsa Pico de gallo” (Fresh mexican sauce) **
Serves 6

  • 4 tbsp diced white onion
  • 1 tbsp Chile jalapeño, diced or to taste
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced
  • 3 tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Lime juice, to taste
  • Salt to taste
  1. Mix all the ingredients, salt and lime juice to taste.

“Salsa Molcajeteada” **
Serves 1 cup

  • 1 medium chile jalapeno
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium garlic clove
  • salt, to taste
  1. Dry roast the chile, tomatoes and unpeeled garlic, for 8 min approximately. Peel the garlic, tomatoes and chile, remove stem from the chile and cut it in half.
  2. In a molcajete or mortar and pestle, make a paste with the garlic and salt, add the jalapeño, work until is almost a paste, add tomatoes and continue working until smooth, check salt.

“Mole Rojo” **
Serves 16

  • 1 pound tomatoes,
  • 1 large white onion
  • 8 medium garlic cloves unpeeled
  • ½ pound chile ancho,
  • ¼ pound chile guajillo,
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 2 inches Mexican canela
  • 4 tbsp brown sesame seeds
  • 2 ounces pecans
  • 2 ounces peanuts roasted unsalted
  • 1 tbsp dried Oaxacan oregano or marjoram
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1½ chicken broth
  • 7 ounces Mexican chocolate
  • 16 assorted chicken pieces
  • ½ white onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • Salt to taste
  1. On a comal or griddle set over medium-high heat dry-roast the tomatoes, onion and unpeeled garlic, the garlic will be ready sooner, when it shows brown spots, remove.
  2. Remove the stems, seeds and veins from the chiles, dry roast them on a dry comal; transfer to soak in hot water no more than 15 minutes. Heat 1.5 tbsp oil on a skillet and sauté the pecans, peanuts, when golden add the sesame seeds, canela, peppercorns, cloves and oregano. Remove from heat.
  3. Transfer the chiles into the blender add enough water to blend; process until smooth, strain; reserve.
  4. Heat remaining oil in a large cazuela (Dutch oven) set over medium low heat and pour the chile puree over the oil, fry for 5-10 min. Blend the remaining prepared ingredients, pass through a sieve. Stir into the chile paste, let the mole reduce, and then add the chicken broth, salt, sugar and chocolate to taste. Let it simmer stirring occasionally until the mole covers the back of a spoon.
  5. To cook the chicken: In a large stockpot bring salted water to a boil, add onion and garlic, when is fast boiling it is time to add the chicken pieces with bones and skins. Reduce the heat to the minimum; let the chicken cook until done (it will be floating on top). Check for doneness, remove and reserve. Strain the broth, reserve to use in the mole.

“Tostadas de Salpicón” (Shredded Beef Tostadas) **
Serves 10

  • 2 lb flank steak, cut in 2 in cubes
  • ½ white onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 potatoes diced and cooked (still firm)
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 Tsp white vinegar
  • 8 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • Ground black pepper and salt to taste
  • 10 romaine lettuce leaves, chiffonnade
  • 6 roma tomatoes diced
  • ½ white onion diced
  • 1 Avocado diced
  • 2 Jalapeños en escabeche chopped, or to taste. optional
  • 20 corn tortillas whole, fried until crispy (tostadas fritas)
  • 1 cup canola oil for frying
  • 1½ cup black bean or pinto bean paste
  1. In a stock pot, place the meat, onion, garlic and salt to taste, cover with water, and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a gently simmer, until cooked through. The meat should be very tender to be pulled apart with the pressure of a fork. Transfer the meat to a large bowl and shred with the help of two spoons or forks
  2. Place the vinegar, lime juice and salt in a bowl, whisk in the olive oil in a stream, until emulsified, mix in the cilantro, oregano and black pepper.
  3. In a large bowl, place the shredded meat, cooked potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, avocado and chiles if you like, mix in the dressing, taste for salt.
  4. In a medium frying pan, heat the oil, and fry the tortillas on both sides until golden, remove and drain on paper towels.
  5. Warm up the bean paste. Spread 1 tbsp of the bean paste on each tostada, top with salpicon. Serve immediately or the tostadas may get soggy.

“Pasta de Frijol” (Refried Beans) **
Serves 20 as a side dish

  • 4 cups of black or pinto beans
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion halved
  • 4 medium garlic cloves
  • ½ cup of canola oil
  • Salt to taste
  1. Clean the beans, removing stones or dirt. Place in a colander and rinse. Place the beans in a container and cover with water, soak overnight.
  2. Place the beans in a stock pot, add 8 cups of water (at least), oil, ½ onion and 2 garlic cloves. Partially cover with a lid, and simmer over medium low heat. Stir occasionally, until tender, add hot water if needed, it will take like 2 hours approx. Check for water, it might need some more, season with salt..
  3. Note. Cooking the beans in a pressure cooker, reduce the cooking time significantly, about half the time.
  4. Transfer the beans (not liquid) to a food processor, and process until smooth. Reserve
  5. Heat the oil in a large casserole, add the onion and remaining garlic cloves, and let them brown, remove from oil and discard.
  6. Add the pureed beans to the oil and cook the beans until it became a paste that can be spread. Keep warm for using.

** All recipes © Iliana de la Vega

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • U.S. Vet.

    The over-priced ‘food’ at Taco Bell just plain sucks. 

    It’s greasy, oily, clogged with cholesterol, in addition to being devoid of essential vitamins and minerals.

    What makes it even worse is that Taco Bell markets their product primarily at young people (teenagers).  No one should be surprised that rates of obesity and diabetes in the U.S. are rising rapidly.

    • Bea

      89 cents is overpriced?

      Of coure it’s devoid of nutrition.  But food can serve a purpose beyond fuel:  grease, oil and cholesterol may not build strong bones, but for me, in moderation, it takes the edge off a rotten day!

      • Gerald Fnord

        I would class that as ‘drug’ or ‘entertainment’, then.

      • Logan

        Eating Taco Bell food literally makes me sick.  I feel like injected my body with half-rotten toxic sludge.  I guess if you’ve built up resistance to the rotteness of the food, then the toxic-sludge part could make you so lethargic that you become “relaxed” as your liver attempts to deal with the crap you just inflicted on it.

        Please, be kind to yourself! 

  • Victor Vito

    Yeah, it’s fascinating that mexican food is on the rise in the US.  I mean, why not scandinavian herring, or British bangers and mash?

    I just can’t figure it out. 

    • Brett

      I figured someone would make a passive-aggressive racist remark. 

  • Adks12020

    Real Mexican food is amazing.  That’s why people like it.  It’s full of spice, deep rich flavors, and fresh ingredients.  I could eat it every day.  I cooked professionally for years and I continue to experiment with traditional Mexican recipes regularly because it’s just so good.  It can compete with any cuisine…Italian, French, Japanese, Thai, Chinese…they are all good but Mexican is easily as good and often better.

    Taco Bell is a horrible ripoff of a truly great cuisine but Americans love it because Americans love fast food…quick, easy, artery clogging, obesity inducing, fast food.

  • FB

    Hello Tom and crew.  Just a small Spanish lesson for you guys.  The singular for tamales is TAMAL, not TAMALE.  I hope you mention this on your show.  Thanks!

  • Gerald Fnord

    Arellano’s appearances on KCRW’s ‘Good Food’ are one of the highlights of the (good) show.  How would we suggest we get more taco trucks here:  are there seeds…?

  • Anonymous

    Margaritas Y Mas!!! Seriously, my wife grew up in Texas knowing good authentic Mexican fare. I have eaten some of the finest food in Mexico as well.

    Thanks to many marvelous hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants she felt quite at home up here and introduced me to what really good Mexican food is. We now have four excellent independent Mexican restaurants within 15 minutes of our home…

    and then there are the chains.

  • MarkVII88

    So much of what passes as Mexican Food in the USA is just cheap junk that’s cleverly named and packaged so us big dumb Americans will lap it up.  Case in point…the Chalupa!  Come on…really?

    • Adks12020

      actually, there is actually mexican street food very similar to a chalupa (I think they are actually called tostadas).  taco bell’s version is crap but they do actually do exist.  the real ones are made with fresh masa that is pressed and then deep fried and filled with assorted condiments, veggies, and/or meat.

      • bellavida

        Yes…the fresh masa that is deep fried then filled with meat and veggies are called “sopes”, the gordita is a thick tortilla made with fresh masa cooked on a hot griddle, then split and filled with meat, veggies, condiments.  There is a chain in Mexico….called Dona Julia’s, that makes the latter that I had in Zacatecas…and they were almost as good as my mom’s…they even had the roasted pork, pork rind and cactus or “nopalitos” that my mom makes.  My husband, whose favorite food is authentic Mexican (he’s French and English descent) said if there was a Dona Julia’s anywhere within driving distance of us…he’d be there every week.  

    • Anonymous

      Isn’t the Taco Bell taco with the Doritos shell authentic?

      • Steve_T

         No such thing as authentic in Taco Bell. The first time I went to a TB looked at the menu and I had to ask, What the hell is an encharito?

  • Nick D

    Nothing beats a well-made burrito. 

  • Anonymous

     I would like to hear some discussion about Taco John which makes Taco Bell look like a gourmet restaurant. 

  • Patrik

    I like to prepare homemade, soft-shell Tacos.  I cook organic hamburger (well), mix in shredded provolone in the afterheat, let it cool a bit, mix in shredded lettuce and enjoy.  I find I can manage the contents better when they are mixed as opposed to stacked, lol.

  • Anonymous


  • John Green

    I grew up in Orange County and tacos and tamales were always popular even in non-Mexican restaurants.  In Mexican restaurants like La Cocinita (does your guest remember Raul?), we branched out to quesadillas and chiles rellenos.  But visiting Mexico for the first time was still a revelation.

  • Rebecca Stanley

    I used to live in the southeastern US and my favorite food was a white cheese dip served at Mexican restaurants.  I moved to the Midwest and cannot find this white spicy queso dip.  When I asked for it at one Mexican restaurant, the owner/chef got upset and told me it isn’t really Mexican.  Is that true?  Why isn’t it in the midwest?

    • BHA in Vermont

       Yeah, I don’t think cheese dip is in ANY way Mexican.

      • bellavida

        Cheese dip is NOT at all Mexican.  Cheese is used sparingly, maybe a sprinkling on a taco or beans. Mexico does not have a big dairy industry (as compared to the US or Northern European countries).  I was born in Mexico, moved here when I was 11 months old and grew up eating entirely home-cooked Mexican food.  I have traveled extensively in Mexico, including Oaxaca, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, Baja, Cancun.  I have never seen cheese dip prepared by any of my many Mexican friends here in the States nor have I seen any cheese dip anywhere in Mexico.  As far as salsas, I have to admit…that the best is homemade for a very close second…no salsa brand can compete with Rick Bayless’s jarred salsas.

  • Neal Grasso

    We have “Toco Tuesdays” in our house!

  • Sheryl

    I have a Mexican co-worker.  He told me that chimichangas are not authentic Mexican food.  Where did it come from?

  • Ren Knopf

    My Mexican food experiences go back to when Red Skelton owned a piece of the Princess hotel in Alcapulco and mom wouldn’t let me drink the milk (carnation in the can mixed with water was a lousy substitute) But, oh, I loved Tacos, mole and guacamole.

  • Melissa

    I love how people I know will argue about which restaurant has the best salsa or taco. People swear by their favorites! I recently moved back to the Midwest from Boston and am enjoying working my way through the many options to find my favorite spot.

  • Mexicanfood

    I thought burritos were invented in San Francisco some 20 years ago

    • Guest

      No, they were invented in Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua, and authentic burritos are much smaller and do not contain rice or lettuce.

  • Tncanoeguy

    In high school (80′s) in Northern Virginia our favorite cheap restaurant was Su Casa owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants.  That guy knew what was trending and what we wanted to eat. 

    • Brett

      The original Anita’s in Vienna was pretty good, too! 

  • New Englander

    I grew up in a Polish-American family in New England, and didn’t encounter ANY Mexican food (even chile) until I was in college in the late 70s, and then it was partly through natural foods cookbooks– Diet for a Small Planet and Moosewood. There was also a Mexican restaurant (kind of upscale) near my college. Now it’s amazing to me to think back on that …. (We also didn’t have as many green vegetables as we do now — I don’t think I ate broccoli until college, either! It was a whole different culinary world — makes me feel old!)

    • Anonymous

      Wow, i could have written this post! Mom was Italian, dad Polish-Russian, but most everything else applies to me, too. We had veggies, but (sorry, mom) they were mostly overcooked.

  • Mattie

    I grew up in the southwest and moved north of the Mason Dixon line when I was in high school. Since then I have not been able to find good Mexican food. The farther north I go the more Americanized it is, like not understanding the difference between a taco and burrito.

    • Adks12020

      I think that’s a bit of a stretch.  I don’t know anyone that doesn’t know the difference between a taco and a burrito.  I live in New York.  There are also lots of Mexican run, Mexican restaurants here.  I think the proprietors would beg to differ about the authenticity of their grandparents recipes.

      • Dayle Ann Stratton

         My experience is the same as Mattie’s.  And I can almost bet you that the food those folks fix for a family meal or gathering is not what’s on their menu. A LOT of northeasterners don’t know the difference, not only between a taco and a burrito, but between authentic Mexican food (from whichever tradition) and the oh-so-Americanized stuff served all too often, even at restaurants run by people of Mexican extraction.  There is a reason they do: they have to in order to stay in business.

  • Kelly Rush

    Mexican has been in my life since I was a little kid.  Born in the Tri-Cities in Washington state to a farming family, my mom learned to make enchiladas from the migrant workers on my grandparents’ farm; as a kid, it felt like Pasco had a REAL Mexican restaurant on most street corners.  I always wanted my mom’s enchiladas on my birthday.  For me, tacos, burritos, enchiladas are my comfort food.  The spice, the richness of flavors, they remind me of my childhood just as much as pot roast and mac & cheese.  

  • marci

    Don’t you think that a lot of the Mexican food we are familiar with is equivalent to a sandwich? Meat, veggies, cheese, special sauce?  So many combos and so easy to make quickly!

  • SK

    This show is making me hungry.

  • Ckm1958

    Why does every meal in Mexican restaurants ALWAYS include rice & refried beans?  Surely, in a country as diverse as Mexico, the main course of every meal doesn’t include these two items.

    • Dayle Ann Stratton

       Exactly.  Those places are like the greasy spoons all over America that serve bacon and eggs for breakfast and hamburgers for lunch.  Not representative of American food, and the rice/refried beans are not representative of Mexican food, which is remarkably diverse and makes use of local foods and tastes. 

  • Adks12020

    nancy (last caller), as a professional chef for years one of the reasons I am frustrated with “foodies” is the need for “sophistication” as you call it.  Some of the best food in the world is super, super simple.  It’s all about the ingredients.  That’s why the northern italian food you talked about is so good.  Good ingredients, well made.

  • Michiganjf

    I live in Texas and have eaten Mexican food all my life… I also travelled extensively in Mexico long ago.

    I eat mexican food regularly here in Austin, and as I said, I’ve eaten it for years, but I can say with confidence that no matter what restaurant I go to, the “Mexican” food little resembles the food from Mexico’s interior.

    Mexican food in America is tailored to the American palette, and most frequently a hybrid of Mexican food combined with the local flavor, expanded by the variety of ingredients readily available in American cities.

    Mexican food in mexico is often more limited ingredient-wise.

    Also, Mariscos, or seafood, figure much more prominently in Mexico than at U.S. Mexican restaurants.

  • C.Deck

    Isn’t it interesting that “ethnic foods”, celebrated for their flavor and influence on American cuisine, all use fresh, natural ingredients; while traditionally American foods, with their additives and preservatives, are not so celebrated…unless of course they stand the test of time (like the Oreo).

  • BHA in Vermont

    Taco Bell is not Mexican food :)

    Find a GOOD Mexican restaurant and you’ll see that Taco Bell  and like them for what they are – food different from “meat and potatoes”, just using some of the ingredients that are used in Mexican food.

    For instance – REAL refried beans are good and bear little resemblance to the gummy stuff in a can from brands like Ortega or Old El Paso. Like fresh peas picked ‘today’ compared to peas in a can.

  • Rex

    I miss the version of Mexican food from North/South Carolina and southern Virginia that I grew to love. I moved to Washington, DC a few years ago and the restaurants here just don’t do it for me.

    • Brett

      What version would that be? …Anyway, you have to go into Arlington to get the good stuff. There are any number of places along Washington Blvd. or Columbia Pike. Also, go to the places where the day laborers hang out waiting for work; there’ll be people with food trucks selling fresh empanadas, tamales, etc., at lunchtime.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1152129461 Catherine Aranda Learned

    My Food and Wine email recipe of the day is “Breakfast Burritos”.  Lol~ turkey bacon, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, kosher salt and feta cheese…now “Mexican”?! Oi vey! Lol…

  • Tncanoeguy

    Authentic Mexican restaurant in Fennville Michigan – many Mexican immigrants in west Michigan.  Go there if you find yourself close to Fennville.  They have a wet burrito the size of a football. 

  • Eva

    I grew up in Los Angeles across the street from an iconic Mexican restaurant in LA, camping in Baja as a kid.   When I first moved to New England in 1985 I went through withdrawal.  it was difficult to find any Mexican ingredients in the market.  I would bring back tortillas and chilies from LA to cook with in Mass.  There were ~2 Mexican restaurants in Cambridge and Boston (both overpriced and not very good).  Now there are some very good small family Mexican restaurants in my North Shore area.  Tortillas, salsas, chilies can be found in most stores.  I know that life is better for me, now that I can buy and prepare good Mexican food easily here up here on the North Shore of Mass.

    • BHA in Vermont

       Me too (So. Cal to N.E.) only a little earlier :)
      My sister was amazed when I told her there was no cilantro in the grocery stores. Thankfully that has changed. My problem growing it at home is the cilantro is going to seed by the time the tomatoes are ripe.

      • Dayle Ann Stratton

         You have to plant leaf cilantro every few weeks– time some to be ready to pick when tomatoes ripen.

    • Yatalk

      Names and locations of “good Mexican food on the North Shore”, please!

  • Susanrutherford

    I am a Jersey Jew who married a Mexican American. I love my matzo balls but was thrilled when my mother in law taught me to make real Mexican rice, pinto beans cooked with a pork bone, tamales with pork in a green sauce, and homemade tortillas. We have two young boys and my suggestion to other parents is to introduce their kids to the real thing. My boys love pinto beans, salsa and tamales. If you only show your kids ground beef and powdered spice mixes with tons of msg, then they won’t like eating the real thing. Do them and yourselves a favor because Mexican food is amazing!!

  • Liz

    While on vacation in Mexico in December, 4 of us took a one-day Mexican cooking course in Puerto Morelos. Just wonderful and couldn’t be more different from what generally passes for Mexico food here.

  • Meghan

    2 things i love about mexican food is its cheap, and theres always a vegetarian option. There is a great burrito place in great barrington,MA, you could get a burrito the size of your head, for under 5 bucks. It would last you 2 to 3 meals. Yum!

  • BHA in Vermont

    Had the best fish tacos every afternoon on our honeymoon (21 years ago) in Akumal (just north of Tulum on the Yucatan peninsula). And the salsa fresco / pico de gallo was far superior to anything I had had in the USA.

    I figured out a few years later while sailing with my sister and her family in the Sea of Cortez that what makes GREAT pico de gallo (to me anyway) is the cilantro. It doesn’t need ANY chili pepper. The bottled processed mush called salsa is a no go on my plate.

  • Logan

    Comparing Taco Bell with Mexican food is like putting Spam in the same category as Kobe Beef.

  • Rocio

    I gew up in Northern Mexico and now I live in Connecticut. I love Mexican Food so much it has now become my pasion and business. I teach Mexican Cooking Classes in the Hartford area, for people that want to learn to make authentic, every day Mexican meals. Please check my website and suscribe to my blog.

  • Modavations

    There is no chili in Mexico.There are no burritos in Mexico.A taco is soft and rolled around steak chunks,not ground beef.Until about 15 years ago it was all bland,bland,bland.We used to call the coffee,Agua Pintada(painted water)Since Vincente Fox ,Mexico has become an economic powerhouse and food quality is way up.When I’m at the beach I eat shrimp.When inland I eat Arrachera(the house steak).Fresh fruit for breakfast every morning.

    • Brett

      Okay, now you’re just doing some kind of Pavlovian thing, here! ;-)

  • Modavations

    I work out of taxco,way up in the hills.In Taxco I can watch O’Reilly and have my Pizza and Modelos delivered(the Pizza is better then the excuses they offer in Boston these days).Aqui estoy encima del mundo

    • Brett

      Hey Mo-D! I haven’t had good since living in NYC over thirty years ago. The stuff in the south, here…..well, I don’t what it is, but it AIN’T pizza!

      • Modavations

        Bro.B, you couldn’t buy a bad slice in Boston 20 years ago.Now the Greeks run the bizz and what the hell do they know about Pizza.Even in Manhattan,it’s a trial.I go to Italy every year and even the slices in the Train Stations are righteous

  • John W.

    I grew up in a small town, Minden, in north Louisiana in the 1950′s.  There was a black gentleman who pushed a tamale cart through the various neighborhoods.  He came by our house every Wednesday.  We had the Wednesday tamales for dinner almost every week. 

  • Brett

    I’m partial to the Salvadorean style…there isn’t anything I don’t like about plantains and sour cream, or tamales, or REAL tacos, or….man, I’m hungry.

  • Michele

    Taco Bell is not allowed in the UK because they cannot guarantee the consistent quality of their food.  Ugh!!

    • Modavations

      Seriously.I go to London often and the food sucks.My opinion

      • Michele

         I lived in the UK for a few years.  The quality of the food is good – the cooking techniques often leave much to be desired…

    • Steve_T

       Taco Bell is not Mexican food, It’s junk food.

  • Larry Keyes


    In my hometown of Yuma,
    Arizona Mexican Food was a local and regional tradition during all the years of
    my youth.  The cuisine there is unlike
    any other I’ve encountered in all my travels.  Food in Southwest Arizona is primarily Sonoran
    style cooking, which is based upon that used in Northwest Mexico by people of
    limited means.

    Dishes of Sonora use
    very little meat, since that ingredient was typically scarce among poor people
    in the desert.  So, the use of corn
    tortillas, chilis, beans, and some vegetables such as radishes and squash are
    typcial of that style of food.

    Tacos there are always
    called either tacos or folded tacos, the former being the default style, thus
    the shortened name.  Buritos are of
    myriad type, and the enchiladas always covered with Rosorito brand red or green
    sauce, and a mild amount of BOTH Longhorn and Monterey Jack grated cheeses –
    none of this liquid, white, messy garbage-cheese sauce so prevalent now in the
    East.  “The saddle” is one of
    the Yuma favorite buritos at La Casa Guiterrez, and is like none other that has
    ever passed my tongue, using ground beef, onions, chilis, and green enchilad sauce.

    As a kid we always
    looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas because at each holiday someome
    would knock on the door carrying a tall, enamaled pot, covered by a cotton
    table cloth, beneath which they would produce hot, wrapped tamales, of only two
    types – those with Monterey Jack cheese and Poblano chilis, or the other
    containing a little spiced pork.  They
    cost $8 a dozen in the 1960′s and early 70s’.  These delicacies were wrapped in corn husks
    and an outer cover of foil, and usually disappeared before making it to the
    kitchen table.

    Another couple items
    I’ve not seen in many years, and ones for which the Mexicans out East are not
    familiar are the Sonora Taco (flauta or rolled taco), and the Machaca Burito.

    Sonora tacos have been
    famous in Yuma since at least the 1950′s, and are nothing more than a rolled
    taco using flour torts instead of corn.  Local lore is that the Sonora Taco was
    invented in the 1940′s by the former top restaurant in Yuma, Chretin’s.  Joe Chretin once told me that during WWII it
    was harder to get corn than wheat flour, owing to corn feed for both domestic
    and Army livestock for the war effort.  So, in the best tradition of Southwest field
    expediency Joe started using flour tortillas for his tacos, and a hit was born.

    Machaca buritios at the
    world famous Mr. G’s on 4th Avenue in Yuma, is a breakfast treat that sells out
    by 9 am every day they are open.  These
    hot items contain the usual pulled beef roast meat used in all beef tacos in
    Yuma, with scrambled egg, green chili (Ortega brand), tomatoes, and onions.  No one East of the Mississippi that I have met
    has heard of this.  They are missing-out

    There are many other
    restaurants and menu items I should mention, but there is one last story I’ll
    offer just for variety.  While in my
    Freshman year of college in Yuma, in Electronics and radio Broadcasting
    programs there, I met a local Mexican guy in one of our classes, who eventually
    invited me to his home for a evening meal, with the pretense of my introduction
    to “real Mexican food”.  What
    was on the family table that night was enough to choke a horse, and was not
    anything I had ever been exposed to. 
    There was eggplant, tongue, brains, guava, cactus, torts, beans,
    etc.  I could barely swallow some of
    those items, yet Lionel Gomez and his parents eagerly cleaned their plates and
    wished me well to try or avoid any part of the meal.

    A side story to this – during
    one of our weekend study sessions at Lionel’s home our skinny friend cooked for
    the four of us some beef tongue using a little cast iron skillet over an open
    fire, and fed us raw jalapenos from a little bush at the South side of his
    house.  We were impressed with the meat,
    but far less so for the hand-picked, burning hot chilis.  I had grown up eating stewed Jalapenos, some
    of which my dad cooked from time to time. 
    Those type of chilis, prepared with vinegar, onions, and carrots have a
    rich, mouth-watering flavor, and far less heat. 
    So, thinking this would be the same item I bit into a whole tiny
    Jalapeno that day, while the others watched my eyes water into oblivion.

    There you have it.  There is lots more where this mess came from –
    inside the mind of a Desert Rat.

    If you think Gustava
    would get a laugh from any of my memories, please pass along these comments,
    with my email address.  K7BDD@arrl.net

    Also, if you want to
    catch a goofy shot of me during my Sophomore year in high school, at my Novice
    Amateur Radio staion, check out the crude little photo tribute site to dad, at http://www.K7BDD.com

    By the by, I’ll also
    mention that my entry into radio broadcasting began in July of 1971 at
    affilliate KAWC, where we radical students began hating the idea of NPR in
    1972.  Now, to a person we are all
    staunch supporters of the network, and of Tom Ashbrook of course.  On Point is my bread and butter for news and


    Larry Keyes

    K7BDD (2nd)

  • sy2502

    I feel really sorry for Gustavo and the many other people who were born in the US but just have to insist in identifying with a culture they simply don’t get. Case in point, he insists in calling chain restaurant food “authentic mexican”, and his mind simply can’t fathom why bastardization of Mexican food is NOT Mexican food. This is why trying to identify with a culture you don’t know ends up sounding pathetic to those who, instead, are part of that culture. Americans, regardless of their ancestry, need to accept that they are American, not Italians, not Latinos, not Dutch, you are Americans. You don’t get what those cultures are because you weren’t born and raised in them, you were born and raised in America. Seriously, as a foreigner I never understood this American fixation of hijacking other cultures and insisting in identifying with them, like they were clothes you can slip on and wear.

    • Modavations

      I love it when Caucasion Christians and Jews call themselves Buddhists.Just trendy crapola

      • Megaxtars

         Oh no it’s back

  • Jeffreypatrick

    In 1976 I moved from Arizona to New York City and there were no Mexican restaurants that I could find. My vain searches brought up Cuban, Puerto Rican and Spanish restaurants, but no Mexican. I love Mexican food. Now I live in rural Japan and have lived here for ten years. When I first came here, again I missed my favorite food. There was nothing even close. Today, there are still no Mexican restaurants, but I can buy tortillas, chilis and most other ingredients at a local store. There are nearly 200 different countries in this world, all with their own unique cuisine. What is it that places Mexican food in at least the top ten in popularity, not only in the US, but across the world?

  • Texanoutofwater

    My parents are from southern California and I spent much of my childhood in Texas.  Thus Mexican food from Tex-Mex to Jalisco style to me has always been common place for me.  When I moved away after college I was terribly sad to not be able to find tortas, napolitos, or mole and just good Mexican food in Mexican restaurants in Georgia and Iowa.  In my travels around the country I have come up with a way to gauge my expectations for the quality and “authenticity” when I walk in the door of a place that markets itself as Mexican.  I first look around at the clientel and staff and listen to the language they are speaking, more Spanish the better.  I then look at the counter for the sale of hand wrapped dulce de leche and international phone cards.  I also check out the TV over the bar, if it is playing a tele novela or soccer I get my hopes up.  When I find all of those things together it feels like the places I found great food in Texas and my mouth starts to water.  Even with all that stuff in a building restaurant, I must admit that the best Mexican food I ever ate came from a truck parked in a random parking lot in Nacogdoches, TX.

  • Marian

    The Witte Museum in San Antonio owns a painting titled Market Square by Thomas Allen who visited the city in 1878-78. It depicts chili stands on Military Plaza. The museum also holds an 1885 photo of exactly the same area (behind San Fernando Cathedral on the east side of Military Plaza) that shows a chili stand. These two images became important primary source materials in my study of San Antonio’s chili queens during their heyday, the 1880s. Titled, The Search for a Chili Queen, the book was published by TCU Press of the Texas A&M Press Consortium, in 2009 and contains many vintage photos and original maps of San Antonio around Military Plaza and the area known as Laredito during the 1880s and 90s. There are also descriptions of chili queen enchiladas (different from those found in most Mexican restaurants today), chili sauce, and other foods served at chili stands that were recorded by newspaper reporters of the era and an army captain who kept records of foods he encountered as he moved from post to post in the American southwest and traveled through northern Mexico. 

  • Pingback: Taco News For Friday April 13, 2012 : Taco Matrix

  • Slipstream66

    Another mout-watering show from OP!  Hats off to Arellano for his funny column and for what is surely a very enjoyable book.  I was struck by his comments towards the end regarding what is and isn’t authentic Mexican cuisine.  You could say the same thigns about Italy, couldn’t you, with their pasta (from China) and their tomatoes (from the Americas).  It just shows the amazing ways that creativity is expressed thru cuisine all around the world.  (And should be in the USA, but too often is not, where our cuisine has been too much of an expression of economics and efficiency).   

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  • Neenytyo

    I have had the pleasure of eating some of the best Mex food in the country… Paquito’s, Brooklynn NY….Joe T Garcia’s, the original, Dallas, Texas and street food from Austin, Texas, as well…some of my best memories are eating in Mexican restaurants…celebrated my one and only marriage, at Joe T’s….Dallas and delicious!

  • http://www.facebook.com/steev.lynn Steev Lynn

    Hi Tom- I wish you and others would stop saying ‘tamale’. There is no such word. It’s ‘tamal’, pl. ‘tamales’. Thanks.

  • Esteban Nieto

    I have been to many States in the Union, and I can tell you that for the most part what I eat in so-called Mexican restaurants, is not Mexican food.  You have to embark on a search for the places in Latino Barrios where mexicans eat to really find something worth while, this is an unfortunate situation (lack of access to good food) as mexican food can be both very healthy and delicious 

  • roy

    I grew up in the Southeast and everybody had a cruet with vinegar and chili peppers in it.  We ate dried beans and all kind of greens.  Can somebody comment on the Mexican use of cabbage, which I’ve been told, is a staple there?

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    In my neck of the woods, a small town about 90 mins south of Buffalo NY, we’ve had a Mexican restaurant for 40 years, so the area’s been ahead of the curve for a while.  Other Mexican restaurants have come and gone but Taco Hut is still standing. 

    Mexican food has become what Italian food did – Americanized.  Traditional Italian food is actually pretty bland, but American Italians spiced it up, made it what Americans think of it today.  A taco here in the US is not what a taco is in Mexico.  Mexican-Americans are taking American food, like the hot dog, giving it their own flare, and Americans are taking Mexican food and adding adding their style to it.  It’s all good!

  • Dayle Ann Stratton

    I live in Vermont.  There is no Mexican food here, unless you are lucky enough to be friends with some of the migrant workers on the farms.  So-called “Mexican” food is unrecognizable to me.  I don’t get what happens to almost every food that comes to America: it gets cheesed. I grew up on the west coast, and believe me, Mexican food is not limited to the kind of thing fast food places serve. Also, Tex-Mex (what most people think of when they say Mexican food) is only one kind.  I miss the many restaurants serving food from the many regions of Mexico. Heaven.  I also miss the abuelas that go from door to door selling bags of tamales.  What I’d give to be able to buy one of those bags. 

  • Susanna Jewell

    Bueno y Sano-the best burrito place in Western Mass-started in Amherst, MA, now has a restaurant in Acton.  The BEST burritos and soft tacos…

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    Mexican food is also popular because it so portable.  Seriously.  So much of it is wrapped (burritos, tamales, etc) so it was easy to carry with you anywhere. 

  • TFRX

    The town I grew up in was so regular-suburban (read: culinarily dull, except for Italian and Polish migration influences) that when a Taco Bell opened up in the 70s it became the best “Mexican” restaurant in the area.

    Things have gotten better since.

  • Carol Gundlach

    The first time we ate good Mexican food was when my husband and I waived to Austin, Texas in 1970 to go to graduate school at the University of Texas. Locally made tortillas in little Mexican bakeries, homemade (literally) tamalas at Christmas, all wonderful. The we moved to Alabama in ’75 and couldn’t find tortillas (except canned) closer than Atlanta. Every trip back to Austin included an ice chest to bring Mexican ingredients back and, in self defense, I became a pretty decent Mexican cook.

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    Isn’t “cheap” and stereotypical ethic food the way most people find their way to the real stuff?  Someone that only knows tacos from Taco Bell will, sometime, get to a restaurant (or recipe) and find that the food that not out of a bag open their minds and tastes, and a whole new appreciation is found, and they will seek that out, rejecting the fast food styles save for desperation. I know I much rather have a freshly prepared food, of any style, than some over processed food.  

    • TFRX

      To tangent, a friend of mine went from suburban Boston to live in Iowa some 20+ years ago.

      He isn’t a gourmand, but came up with the idea that there are some places out there where:

      “An Olive Garden opens, and it’s the best restaurant in town.”

  • Jenny

    Let’s talk margaritas…They are SO popular at “Mexican” restaurants…Funny story–I have lots of first-generation Mexican friends who live here in small-town Iowa…to them, a “margarita” is a flower–a carnation, I think! I don’t think the drink is Mexican–or is it?!

  • Steve_T

    Great show. The history lesson of Mexican food a great +.

  • 1bahb1

    Tom, it is quite a stretch, even for you, to feature a program called how Mexican food conquered America, and to do so on the 4th of July.  Surely there are stories present and historical that would make us weep with gratitude, dance with pride, or be in somber reverence for the sacrifices for liberty that so many have made.  Being giddy over tacos on this day suggests an attitude toward this great country that might best be described as damned with faint praise.  ( I’m of immigrant parents, love Mexican food, Indian food, and Pakistani food.)   You remind me of the NPR reporter a few years back, commenting on the anniversary of 9/11.  She said, and I quote, “This is the anniversary of the day when two planes, off course, crashed into the World Trade Center.” 

  • Btrus

    The Native Americans who taught the pilgrims to grow beans and corn were taught by Mexicans who developed the seeds for the corn.

  • Cahaus

    My first experience with Mexican food was durring a time when my family started eating only highly processed foods, so when I had fresh made tortillas and tamales for the first time I fell in love. All the mexican food I had was fully homemade and fresh. It affected me so much that I traveled to Oaxaca to take cooking classes. I now continue to cook my own food from scratch and my health has benifited sooooo much! I am highly gratefull!

  • SicaJuan

    I’m listening to the show now on WNYC.  So much of what’s being said is applicable to all of Latin America! “Mexico itself is a mix of factors from all over the world.” So is every other country in the New World. You go to Guatemala, you people who look like Mayan carvings going to doctors named Rosenberg and drinking German beer. Go to Brazil and you get all kinds of combinations of African, European and American in cuisine, music, art, and beauty.

    Mexican food (in the way they were talking about it) just exemplifies patterns that apply everywhere, especially with expanding means of cultural expansion. What is the US, for goodness sake? Call me PoMo but I hardly think you can separate the US from that multitude of cultures which have morphed it over the years. What can you say about Mexican food in the states that you can’t say about Italian and Chinese? 

  • Pingback: How Mexican food captured the American imagination (and stomach) « The Conscientious Omnivore

Aug 21, 2014
In this November 2012, file photo, posted on the website freejamesfoley.org, shows American journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group have beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials say. (AP)

An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
Jen Joyce, a community manager for the Uber rideshare service, works on a laptop before a meeting of the Seattle City Council, Monday, March 17, 2014, at City Hall in Seattle. (AP)

We’ll look at workers trying to live and make a living in the age of TaskRabbit and computer-driven work schedules.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

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