Selling Out: The Question of Authenticity in Mexican Food

The Doritos Locos and kitschy Tex-Mex joints of the world aren't doing Mexican food any favors. In fact, it's one of those cuisines that's been particularly bastardized in America for most of its history. While cheesy red-sauce Italian restaurants have largely dwindled (nostalgic redos aside), hokey, nacho-slinging "Mexican" joints can still be found across the U.S.

For years most Americans falsely identified Tex-Mex, and in some cases Cal-Mex, as Mexican. But despite the fact that authentic, regional Mexican food is becoming more widely available across the country, is the cuisine still in its “spaghetti phase"? We asked chefs from around the U.S. to assess the current state of Mexican cuisine and, more important, talk about the compromises they’ve had to make in order to remain salable. Is it worth it to remain unflinchingly authentic, even when it could mean losing business?

Mexico City native Jimmy Shaw refused to put burritos on his menu at LA’s Loteria Grill when he first started out. But one day, that changed. He tells us, “When I first started near the farmer’s market 11 years ago, I refused to put burritos on my menu. 'No way,' I said. One week I went to Mexico City for vacation, and when I came back one of my cooks said, 'Oh, you’re going to be really mad at me - while you were gone I put burritos on the menu for a week.' I was annoyed, but then I looked at the numbers - my sales went up like 20%. So at that point I thought, If you can’t beat them, join them. But my burritos have authentic mole and pipian in them, etc. I won't compromise when it comes to ingredients and preparation.”

Manuel Trevino of Marble Lane and The Beach (NYC) tells us he's also had to make some alterations: “I alter the heat levels to appeal to a broader audience. Ingredients are also different here, so I have to buy strategically. For example, I use Muenster cheese instead of Chihuahua cheese here, because it’s more similar to the Chihuahua cheese in Mexico. The Chihuahua cheese they sell here is completely inauthentic.”

Aaron Sanchez's Kansas City eatery Mestizo has had to adjust his food a bit to suit local tastes: “Here in Leawood people aren’t as adventurous, so I’ve had to put fajitas on the menu. My mom had a really great version of it at the restaurant. I did it the way she did it instead of the way Americans think of fajitas, with the sauteed peppers and all that crap. That was how I compromised."

When Alex Stupak first opened his interpretive Empellon Cocina in NYC's East Village, he didn't offer tacos on the menu. This has subsequently changed. But despite the change, Stupak's food remains true to authentic techniques. He tells us: “The reason I’m comfortable saying we cook Mexican even if it’s not traditional or authentic is because our core cooking techniques are 100% Mexican; you are never going to see us mince shallots and sweat them in butter. Instead, we’ll toast chile and garlic and onions the way they do in Mexico. Ingredients define cuisine just as much as the way you utilize them.”

While chefs like Stupak have helped take Mexican food to new heights, inspiring chefs all over the country, it's still a cuisine that's largely misunderstood. Jimmy Shaw remarks: "Mexican food is still stuck in its 'spaghetti phase,' and it will take us awhile to get to its 'pasta phase.' So much of it was it was our neighbor next door, and we had other things to explore before that. And then it's also like, who's the predominant immigrant? It’s been the Mexican. So you don’t have the Italian or Irish influence as much lately. Mexico has had its own renaissance and its own discovery of its cuisine. It hasn’t until the last 30 years really embraced itself. I think in doing that, the expression of the cuisine in Mexico has blossomed so nicely that I think we’re seeing that influence creep up here."

But very often it's the more authentic dishes or preparations that aren't readily recognized. Stupak tells us: "Sometimes, just for fun, we will offer a hyper-authentic textbook Mexican dish at Cocina, and hardly anyone will recognize it as authentic. One great example are tamales colados, which I put on the opening menu at Cocina. I put this on the menu at Cocina and people thought I didn’t know how to make a tamale. It reaffirms my belief that it’s a fascinating cuisine because people are opinionated about it even if they don’t necessarily know what real Mexican cuisine is."

So is the perception of Mexican cuisine changing? Absolutely, every chef affirms to us. But true Mexican cuisine still has a way to go in terms of being correctly identified by the average American. Shaw assures us that while that might still be a long way off, Mexican food is slowly but surely being recognized as a high-end cuisine in mainstream America. "Not as fast as many of us would like, but it’s interesting to me to go to a bar in a fancy hotel at least in LA. Five years ago you wouldn’t find a Mexican dish or ingredient on any of their bar menus. I think if you go to a hip hotel in almost any major city, there will be some kind of taco on their menu now. It’s happening little by little. It’s changing, not fast enough, but it’s changing."

1 comment:

  1. I can´t believe that this usually well documented blog implied in this post that Burritos and Nachos or fajitas are not Mexican food.
    Burritos have a well known origin in Juarez, while Nachos were doubtlessly born in Piedras Negras.
    Juarez and Piedras Negras are Mexican border cities, amd the popularity of these dishes in Texas do not make them TexMex inventions.
    Burritos and nachos are as Mexican as mole and tacos. The problem with some Mexican chefs living in the US is that they were born in Central Mexico and do not have an idea of the origin of the Mexican dishes they found when they arrived to the US.
    A common issue in mainstream Mexican culture is that in some fields (e.g. Mexican cuisine) Central Mexican views tend to disregard Northern Mexican cultural legacy. That used to be the case with Mexican music until the 90s. when the Mexican Grupera music (mainly from Northern Mexico), became mainstream, leaving behind Ranchero and Mariachi genres, originated in West and Central Mexico