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Food & Drink

Gustavo Arellano's 'Taco USA' book tour comes to San Antonio with dire warning for regional cuisine

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Oranges for sale: Taco USA author Gustavo Arrellano

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arrellano, Simon & Schuster, $25, 320 pages

Gustavo Arellano writes "Ask a Mexican," a syndicated weekly Q&A about all things, and anything, Mexican. Two summers ago I rendezvoused with The Mexican himself in Hatch, New Mexico. I was in town to buy green chile for the freezer. He was researching his third book, which was to be called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

Now published, Taco USA is full of history researched, rescued and retold, and flavored with fun and important stories from the present, as it chronicles the impact of Mexican food on American culture. The cuisine has seeped into surprising places, like canned chicken tamale rations for American soldiers sent to the Philippines during World War II, or the invention of Doritos at Disneyland, or the breakfast burritos that were rolled at the International Space Station by Mexican-American astronaut Danny Olivas.

But this rising tide of Mexican food isn't floating all boats the same way. If Arellano were trading shares of the stuff, he'd be buying a modest stake in Denver-Mex (or Den-Mex cuisine), holding onto his California-Mex (Cal-Mex) interest, and selling his Tex-Mex for whatever he could get for it.

Den-Mex, he says, is a gem that's virtually unknown off Colorado's I-25 corridor. He's particularly infatuated with the Denver burrito, aka the Mexican Hamburger, which he described as a smothered burrito, usually with beans and chicharrónes, with a hamburger patty inside. "Right smack dab in the middle, it's all scrunched up in the middle of the burrito. … And it's also spicy as hell."

Arellano's forecast for classic Tex-Mex is not so upbeat. While chili con carne has worked its way into heartland recipe books, it's no longer on the march. In recent years, the rise of Cal-Mex sped the decline of Tex-Mex as well, Arellano writes in Taco USA. "The burrito only reached Texas in the second part of the twentieth century."

Arellano doesn't quite pronounce Tex-Mex dead, but in his book he quotes what he calls an "inglorious obituary" to Tex-Mex food that was printed in Texas Monthly. "'We will always love our yellow cheese. But as dishes from Mexico's heartland apply for permanent residency in Texas at an ever-increasing rate, we're on the threshold of a new culinary era: the time of Mex-Tex.'"

In his book Arellano describes Tex-Mex as "platters baked in an orange goop resembling a dairy product." But on the phone his assessment of the dying guard was more glorified. "I'm a fan of Tex-Mex. A lot of people dismiss it as trash, but it's not. Tex-Mex has its own charm. Look at what food writer Robb Walsh is doing in Houston with his restaurant El Real Tex-Mex [Cafe]. He basically set that up because he himself — an apostle of Tex-Mex, a friend and a mentor of mine — he felt that Tex-Mex food was slowly disappearing." 

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