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Q&A: OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano on Mexican food, yellow cheese and 'Bro-Mex'

Photo by katieharbath/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano knows a thing or two about Mexican food, and not just the traditional stuff that is actually found in Mexico. In his by now legendary “¡Ask a Mexican!” column, Arellano routinely fielded inquiries like “I always wondered why Mexican restaurants en los Estados Unidos use queso amarillo (yellow cheese) on their food."

Lately, as he’s been researching a book on the history of Mexican food in the United States and its many variations, Arellano has given us a taste of a “Spanish” feast in the Orange County of the 1890s (served with a sauce that a newspaper reporter at the time called “sarsa”) and brought us the food-genre term “Bro-Mex.”

Along the way, he has encountered plenty of gooey yellow cheese. But American-style Mexican food is about much more than that, a point that Arellano makes in his forthcoming “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” set to be published in April of next year by Scribner.

And while he can’t reveal all he’s learned while researching the book, he is clear about one thing: There’s no shame in ordering that chimichanga combo plate.

M-A: So you’re writing a book about Mexican food in the United States. Is this the type of food that comes smothered in yellow cheese? Is it really Mexican food?

Arellano: It absolutely is Mexican food, with no qualifiers. The great Chicano scholar Américo Paredes coined the term "Greater Mexico" to refer to how, even though Mexican migrants might've gone into the United States, that somehow didn't negate their mexicanidad on virtue of geographic movement; they were still Mexican.

Similarly, the Mexican combo platter smothered in yellow cheese is as Mexican as the chilango tlacoyo, as the Taco Bell taco, as whatever comes out of Rick Bayless' kitchen. They're all different regional manifestations of the mother tortilla. The cheese touch, by the way? Came from Texas' version of Mexican food, which we all know and ridicule as Tex-Mex, even though we stole their combo plate idea.

M-A: What are the signature dishes and/or touches, and who serves it?

Arellano: Depends on what you're talking about. The classic Tex-Mex meal is a combo plate-beans, rice, and an entree that can range from chile con carne (what the rest of the country now calls chili) to enchiladas and even cheese tacos, which is really nothing more than a corn tortilla stuffed with processed cheese - and then comes the cheese.

Cal-Mex cuisine has more guacamole, burritos, and tacos, and is really the pocho child of Sonoran cooking (where beef reigns, along with the flour tortilla) and central Mexico, specifically Jalisco (home to menudo, birria, pozole, and flautas, which we know better as taquitos). Then there's New Mexican food, Colorado Mexican, Fresh Mex...just wait for the book!

M-A: Where did this cuisine originate, and how did it evolve into, say, the chimichanga combination plate?

Arellano: Again, it all depends on the region. Each has their own origin stories and myths, and then there are other traditions which predate them in the United States that I won't discuss here because the book will tell those stories.

M-A: Who invented the chimichanga, anyway? Is there any truth to the legend that it came from a cursing cook in Arizona?

Arellano: El Charro Cafe in Tucson, the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the United States (El Cholo Cafe is #2), claims to have invented the chimichanga. I don't buy their story, only because every Mexican food phenomenon in this country has about a dozen origin myths apiece. But the chimichanga, like the burrito, definitely did originate somewhere between Arizona and Sonora.

M-A: How did you become interested in writing a book about yellow cheese-style Mexican food? Is there anything about it that you like, perhaps in a nostalgic sort of way?

Arellano: It's not all yellow cheese! The book covers the entirety of Mexican food's hold over American palates, from the chili queens of San Antonio to the fast-food tacos, Mission burritos, sit-down Mexican restaurants, hot sauces, cantinas, canned tortillas, and so many other trends that have risen in the genre over the past century.

It'd be easy to turn this into a memoir of food, but putting my stories in there would only distract from the much-better narrative that is the arc of Mexican food in this country. I became interested in the subject because no one else had done a full book on the history of Mexican food in this country (although Robb Walsh's books on Tex-Mex are magnificent), and because I love telling great stories.

That food's involved is almost besides the point - the history and conflict and racialization of it all is what drew me in. Oh, and the yellow cheese.

M-A: Any highlights of the research you’re doing that you’d like to share?

Arellano: Let's just say at this point I think I found the first-ever proper lonchera to roam the streets of L.A. There are many more discoveries I've found, but you know what they say about loose labios...

M-A: Lastly, que carajo is Bro-Mex?

Arellano: HA! Here's the link, but Bro-Mex is a category that us Weeklings created to describe a certain type of restaurant, one patronized mostly by gabachos who grew up eating Cal-Mex food but don't exactly feel comfortable eating at a taqueria, not necessarily because they're racist (they're not) but because they want to eat in an environment where Sublime is playing on the speakers, not Los Tigres del Norte.

In OC, we call them bros, and they're acolytes of Mexican food. This genre is as legitimate as Oaxacan food, and definitely part of the Greater Mexico approach to Mexi food.

Arellano will share more next month at the Eat Real Festival in Culver City, where he’ll be on a panel addressing what he calls “the Great Mexican Food Authenticity Question.”