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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Latin Americanisms: Taco Philosopher

Tacos are an important part of my life. You might even — if you were so inclined — call me something of a taco philosopher. Now a taco philosopher ponders the deeper questions of taco existence. What size tortilla is best? What is the ideal cilantro/onion ratio? And of course, the question which still keeps me up at night and which has confounded taco theorists since the dawn of the taco: salsa verde or salsa roja?

But nowadays, other, more pressing metaculinary questions keep me sleepless and away from pleasant taco-filled dreams. Namely, why is Davis such a terrible taco town?

Now I know some Davisites may take issue with my framing of the question. And I certainly don’t mean for this to be an unfair attack or snobby takedown of Davis taco culture, or the many taco dispensers which make their home in Davis for that matter. But I do intend to shine an unapologetic light on the path to taco nirvana. And folks, pardon the tough love but it sure as hell is not a path found in Davis.

For one, if you are frequenting a Mexican restaurant which prepares in any shape or form the monstrosity that is carne asada fries, you can rest assured that this is in no way a Taco Philosopher-endorsed taqueria. This puts me in a perilous position and limits my options drastically given that most taquerias in the States have shunned tradition in favor of cultural pragmatism i.e. profits. There is nothing wrong with this on the face of it, and while I may seem to be overly critical I nevertheless sympathize with these business owners. They craft these unholy creations because no matter their cultural allegiance, at the end of the day they’re a business first and foremost, and American college kids for whatever reason enjoy a side of fries mixed in with their serving of steak and cheese. Mexican culinary traditions be damned!

But why then this undying love for the taco? After all it’s a quite simple and ordinary being: a corn tortilla (not flour, obviously), some meat — popular options include carne asada, al pastor, the slightly more exotic cabeza (head meat), lengua (tongue), tripas (tripe i.e. guts) — cilantro and diced onions, and to top it off a nice dressing of salsa, be it salsa de tomatillo, salsa de jitomate, what have you — the salsa is not the issue here. This compendium of deliciousness is what comprises the existence of what Mexicans collectively refer to as the taco — keeping in mind that there are variations of the taco; add-ons if you will (it all gets very complicated).

Now on to what a taco isn’t. A taco is not bathed in sour cream. A taco is not sprinkled with cheddar cheese (there should be no yellow colors in the taco). A taco does not come in a hard-shell tortilla. A taco should, but does not necessarily have to be, accompanied by a Mexican lager — beer snobs rejoice (Corona can be ignored; better options are Pacifico and Modelo, which are quite good). And finally, but most importantly, a taco should be referred to as a taco, not a taquito — that is an entirely different being — not a burrito, and certainly not a chalupa, for that is a wooden boat.

My call is not to shun these neighborhood institutions but to supplement them with more daring acts of culinary exploration. Maybe give a taco truck in Sacramento a visit (the mobile aspect, while potentially off-putting, only increases the authenticity given the hustle and bustle nature of a place like Mexico City), order some tacos de lengua, work your way up to tacos de sesos.

Food is a major component of culture and can reveal a lot about a people’s traditions and ways of being. The taco is as symbolic as it is delicious. It’s a marriage of Mexican ingenuity and historical tradition. It’s a synthesis of Indian, European and Middle Eastern traditions (much like Mexico herself), which borrows as much from the Lebanese kebab as it does from German sauerkraut. The same might be said of the Mexican-American fusion resulting in carne asada fries. But I’ll leave those philosophical investigations for the carne asada fries philosophers. I am sure our theoretical jousting will be both tasty and fruitful.

 

If you also share this writer’s dislike for carne asada fries, you can find a friend in JORGE JUAREZ at jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu.

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