By Anthony Pignataro
Here’s an easy way to impress your friends: challenge them to name all the places on Maui that sell Mexican food.
Well, let’s see. There are six Maui Tacos locations scattered across the island, at least four Amigo’s spots, three Taco Bells (yes, they count), Polli’s up in Makawao, Taqueria Cruz in Kihei, Las Pinatas in Kahului, that relatively new spot in the Lahaina Cannery Mall near the old Compadres, Fred’s Cantina, Fiesta Time in Wailuku, the Tortilla Burrito Company in Fiesta Time’s old spot in Paia, the Commercial Mexicana store in Lahaina, that store next to Fiesta Time…
Of course, you also have to add places that aren’t Mexican-specific, but offer Mexican items. That includes a whole manner of grocery stores and restaurants, which, inevitably, leads to endless discussion and debate over who does what better.
Who has the tastiest fish tacos: Cool Cat Café or Leilani’s? Does Kahului Ale House or Moose’s offer the biggest platter of nachos? How does Pacific’O’s kalua pork quesadilla stack up against the one Haliimaile General Store makes with brie and grapes? Shouldn’t the Southwestern Salad at McDonald’s have blue corn chips? Is there a bar on the island (or in the state, for that matter) that doesn’t have at least one bottle of Tequila on the shelf?
How Mexican food came to be everywhere is the subject of a new book that hits shelves this week. Called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, it’s written by Gustavo Arellano. A former colleague of mine from my days as a reporter for OC Weekly, he’s now the editor of that publication as well as the author of the sarcastic, syndicated Ask a Mexican! column that runs in 37 alternative weeklies across the country.
For Arellano, “Mexican food” is a rich conglomeration of influences that span not just both sides of the Rio Grande, but many nations across the planet. In fact, one of his favorite “Mexican” dishes is the Korean taco–kalbi rib meat topped with kim chee and ladled into a tortilla (which, now that I think about it, would do gangbusters on Maui should anyone decide to start offering them…).
There’s no reactionary zeal for true, “authentic” Mexican fare in these pages. In fact, Arellano says to be wary of restaurants offering “authentic” Mexican cuisine. What, there’s pineapple in that salsa? Pastrami and tater tots in that burrito? Taco Bell’s selling a new taco wrapped in a shell made from Doritos? Sweet!
“We must consider the infinite varieties of Mexican food in the United States as part of the Mexican family–not a fraud, not a lesser sibling, but an equal,” he writes in the first few pages. “Wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it’s people, food, language, or rituals, even centuries removed from the original mestizo source, it remains Mexican.”
In any case, this isn’t a history of Mexican food in Mexico, which is a far more diverse (and spicy) domain of food that us Americans can imagine. Besides, “authentic” cuisine means dumping many of the items and entrees we hold so dear: chips and salsa, burritos rolled up like soda cans, tacos made with ground beef and/or pre-fabricated crispy shells, chili con queso, fajitas.
Yes, even fajitas. Born in the Rio Grande valley in Texas, Arellano tells us the original was a poor worker’s dish using skirt steak (faja means “belt” in Spanish). Of course, today fajitas include any kind of grilled meat–which should sizzle so loud that customers within 15 feet can’t carry on a normal conversation–though vegetarian fajitas are sometimes available.
The book is, at its heart, a series of interesting and often surprising anecdotes about the birth and evolution of many foods across the Mexican spectrum. It’s not a grand history of the political, market and gastronomical influences that led to the explosion of Mexican food in the U.S. over the last century and a half. Rather, it’s a survey, with chapters organized around the creation and development of individual items or specialties–chocolate, tacos, “Southwestern cuisine,” Fritos, tequila, etc. Think of it as a Modern Marvels episode, but in convenient book form.
It’s an easy read, but if there’s one warning to offer, it’s that it will make you hungry. Which is good, because even out in the Central Pacific, there are plenty of places to satisfy your need for Mexican food.
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America
by Gustavo Arellano
Scribner, New York
289 pages, $24