A Facebook Conversation With Gustavo Arellano
If you missed it Wednesday, here’s a transcript of our Facebook chat with Gustavo Arellano, slightly edited for order. Thanks to Yadhira De Leon for moderating!
Let’s welcome ¡Ask a Mexican! columnist, OC Weekly editor, and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano! In this thread, he will answer our questions about Mexican food in the U.S. Feel free to post your own, then refresh the link to see new responses. Let’s get started!
The Autry Tell us about your background, where did you grow up, who did all the cooking in your house, etc.
Gustavo Arellano Born and raised in Anaheim, California to zacatecanos, which meant I lived a life of nopales, gorditas, birria, y quesadillas. Oh, and tacos dorados, haha
Gustavo Arellano during a recent interview with Trading Posts in Santa Ana (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Gustavo Arellano My mother did all of the cooking–the only thing I know how to cook is quesadillas, but they’re AMAZING!
Joe De La Riva Where can we get the best chitlins/tripas?
Gustavo Arellano Joe de la Riva: Are we talking tacos de tripas, o menudo?
The Autry Do you cook? If not, what makes you an expert?
Gustavo Arellano I don’t cook other than quesadillas; what makes me an expert is that I’ve been eating my entire life, have tried different styles of Mexican food, and have researched it to its masa ends.
Jenny Silverstein What makes Mexican food taste so damn good?
Gustavo Arellano Jenny: What makes Mexican food so delicious is the varieties of flavors: the heartiness of masa, the spiciness of chilies, mole’s complexities, the crunch of a taco dorado, and so many more. And we’re only talking about the basic combo plate, not the regional differences that make Mexican food like an endless hat dance of delights.
Why are corn tortillas so tiny (and doubled) and flour so humongous?
Gustavo Arellano Corn tortillas aren’t always doubled; you only see that in certain tacos. People do that to fill you up faster; besides, it’s better. And the reason corn tortillas are smaller than flour is due to the physiological properties of corn versus wheat; you can only make a corn tortilla so big before it splits under its own weight. Think of a difference between tissue paper and a roll of paper which you use to clean up a spill, and you’ll get the idea.
Dennis Wilen Where are you going for dinner tonight? A chile relleno burrito at at Lucy’s on LaBrea?
Gustavo Arellano Dennis Wilen you pocho bastard! After my signing at Book Soup tonight, you’ll know where to find me! (Don’t tell my enemies, haha)
Why are Mexicans obsessed with lime/lemon? We put lemon on everything. I go so far as to eat the rind of the lemon. Is there an answer to this lemon craze within a historical context?
Gustavo Arellano Nans: It’s the tartness of a limón that finishes off all the great flavors. Mexicans love tart flavors–look at our obsession with jamaica (hibiscus), tamarind, pickled carrots, etc.
The Autry We heard that the obsession with lemons came from lack of refrigeration during the Revolution to ensure the meat didn’t spoil as quickly.
Gustavo Arellano For the Revolution myth: bull. If meat was rotting, Mexicans had the option of drying it, just like they do in Sonora con carne seca. It’s not like if the lemon only made its way to Mexico after the Revolution.
Canyon Cruz Do you like Guatemalan food?
Gustavo Arellano Canyon Cruz: Yes I do; they have one of the best tamales in the Americas with paches, which are made from a potato masa. Go try them!
Juan Carlos Garza How long did it take to research and write the book?
Gustavo Arellano Juan Carlos: I got the idea for the book in late 2008, started researching in 2009, and finished my draft at the beginning of 2011–that’s about two years. But I could’ve finished it faster if I wasn’t so damn busy…
Is there any food that you really object to people wrongly calling “Mexican food”?
The Autry Gustavo is experiencing FB issues. He is hooking up to a better wi-fi service and is talking to us about Korean tacos on the phone.
Gustavo Arellano Lusine: I used to be one of those authenticistas, who thought there was “real” Mexican food and fake. But doing the research for TACO USA taught me the opposite–whatever people think is Mexican food, is Mexican food. Who are we to tell someone what is and isn’t Mexican food? We can say if it’s any good, but to make pronouncements that something’s Mexican and something isn’t is silly.
The Autry So if what you told Lusine is true, then when Mexicans are working in in a Chinese restaurant are they making Mexican food or are they making Chinese food?
Gustavo Arellano The final product that people eat is the food that gets labeled as a particular type of food; the producer has nothing to do with it. Americans have made Mexican food for over a century, and Mexicans have been making all sorts of ethnic cuisine in Southern California for decades. But we don’t call a bagel a Mexican food item, not even a jalapeño bagel. At what point does a food cross over? I’d say after it becomes ubiquitous in a culture from where it started off as a foreigner.
Anne Edkins SoCal is obviously a great place to find excellent Mexican food. But is there some other city or region in the US where there’s a surprisingly large Mexican population serving great food?
Anne: Many places. Tucson and their Sonoran hot dogs. El Paso and their awesome rolled tacos buried under a blizzard of yellow cheese. San Antonio’s puffy tacos; Denver’s Mexican hamburgers. Wichita makes its own type of Mexican food, influenced by the beef trade and a bunch of sour cream!
The Autry What’s the ideal Mexican meal to eat when you’re on a diet?
If you’re on a diet, you want to eat as many nopalitos (chopped-up cactus) as possible. It’s incredibly healthy, low in calories, and you can mix it up many ways: as a salad, as tacos, as a substitute for meat, even as candy. It’s a severely underrated ingredient that more Americans should embrace.
The Autry What is your favorite commercial hot sauce?
Gustavo Arellano Tapatío, of course, is a standard at every Mexican household, but I’m a huge fan of Gringo Bandito hot sauce. It seems unlikely, given that the guy who makes it is Dexter Holland, punk legend for the Offspring, but the gaba knows his hot sauce: as great as Tapatío, but with seeds!
Hilarie Kelly You had me at birria … Love the book. Will buy another to send my daughter in Australia.
Gustavo Arellano Hilarie: Too kind! Birria is a magnificent meal—I still say only us Mexis, Indians, Pakistanis, and Caribbeans know the glories of the meat. Gracias for buying the book!
Gustavo Arellano makes a point (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Anne Edkins What’s the ideal Mexican meal to eat when you’re NOT on a diet? i.e., the most decadent food?
Gustavo Arellano The most decadent meal is particular to my home region of Jerez, Zacatecas: asado de boda jerezano. Read about it here: … Damn link! Will post when I can.
Canyon Cruz Have you noticed corn tortillas changing over the years? Are they using genetically altered corn these days?
Canyon Cruz: Corn tortillas are becoming worse and worse, and it’s all the fault of Gruma, the people behind Maseca, Guerrero, and Mission tortilla brands. They’re driving out traditional tortillerías in favor of their cardboard monstrosities. OUT, DAMN DEVIL, OUT!
The Autry What’s the most unlikely ingredient or concoction you found during your research for this book?
Gustavo Arellano The strangest meal by far is the Mexican hamburger of Denver: a chicharrón-and-bean burrito with a hamburger patty in the middle, then “smothered” (what us Southern Californians would call wet) with chile specific to Denver: orange, more like a gravy, and hot as hell.
Yodotdog Chavez Menudo or Posole??? White or red? Corn or flower tortillas? Can tell a lot from your choices.
Gustavo Arellano Yo: Pozole, red, corn tortillas (unless they’re from Tucson or El Paso).
Tracy Gutierrez Gustavo………what is with the Mexicans love for rábanos??? My parents, being from Jerez and Puebla love them, while us kids just can’t get into them. My mom has admitted that she didn’t like them until she married my dad………….is it also a regional thing?
Gustavo Arellano Tracy: Rábanos (radishes) are meant mostly as a palate cleanser, due to their crisp, moist taste. You see them in most taquerías, so I’d say it’s more of a Central Mexico tradition than anything.
The Autry Do you plan on creating a series of books on food? What is your next adventure?
Gustavo Arellano Not sure about another food book — I have other projects in mind. Want to do a history of the Orange County Register, or a biography of someone INSANE…
The Autry You mentioned Maseca, what do you think of the fact that college professors are now researching the history of tortillas?
Gustavo Arellano I’m glad people are researching food history; for far too long, that genre was neglected, if not outright dismissed. Too many of our food histories have disappeared because of our neglect.
Anahi Garcia love your book, it was a great help for my research paper in my latino pop culture “authentic mexican food” ..what is your believe on authentic salsas? what makes a salsa a great salsa?
Gustavo Arellano Anahi: Gracias for buying my book! As I wrote, there is no such thing as “authentic” anything. Who determines what is authentic? I love salsa de chile de árbol, but someone from the Yucatán would prefer habanero salsa, and someone from Oaxaca would prefer a mole salsa. What makes a good salsa for me is the right mix of flavors, heat, its thicknes (I like them a bit thicker than watery), and its overall umami.
The Autry What’s your must-eat Mexican restaurant in L.A.? In the U.S.?
Gustavo Arellano Buy my book to find out haha! For sure in LA, Guelaguetza, Rivera, Lucy’s Drive-In for their chile relleno burrito, Cielito Lindo for the taquitos … again, buy my book for more!
The Autry Can you talk about why salsas are runny in Mexico and chunky here?
Gustavo Arellano The difference in chunkiness is regional. Chunky salsa is a part of Sonoran cooking and the borderlands. I’d probably attribute it to the abundance of vegetables, but it’s all regional. One of my aunts makes a great chunky salsa filled with chili peppers and tomatoes–and we’re from Zacatecas!
The Autry There’s a lot of talk about chocolate being a major ingredient in mole, but mole is more about the chile. Do you have to keep explaining that?
Gustavo Arellano Not necessarily true. If you see the recipe for the asado de boda jerezano (a type of mole), we use a massive chocolate bar. Mole negro uses chocolate paste. Again, it’s all regional traditions–no one tradition is right.
The Autry If you were to die tomorrow, what would be your last meal?
Gustavo Arellano Asado de boda jerezano!!!
Gustavo Arellano And horchata estilo Oaxaca, y preparada.
The Autry What can we look forward to on Sunday at the Autry during your talk at the Go West Book Fest?
Gustavo Arellano I’ll give a lecture about my book, take questions from the audience, and tell everyone how Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was instrumental in popularizing Mexican food. GO GO GO and BUY BUY BUY!
The Autry What? No demo on how to cook asado de boda jerezano?
Gustavo Arellano HA! Can’t cook, remember? And you’re only supposed to do for a wedding–hence, the boda part!
Joe De La Riva Tacos de tripas, imho
The Autry Any final words of Mexican culinary wisdom?
Gustavo Arellano Gracias to the Autry for having me, and for ustedes readers for the great questions; if you have any more, message me on Facebook. In the meanwhile, buy my book!
The Autry Thanks for joining us! This was a very enlightening conversation. We’ll see you on Sunday!
Canyon Cruz Thanks Gustavo
The Autry Thank you all for your insightful questions! We hope you enjoyed it!
Ruth Taylor Kilday Love Gustavo! Thanks, Autry.