How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

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.

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More ethnic food tastes worth acquiring: Cabrit

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Cabrit fricassee at TiGeorge's with all the Caribbean fixings, May 2011

Goats are cute. And unfortunately for them, they are also tasty.

The beloved, beady-eyed petting zoo favorites are considered delectable in many parts of the world. This includes in much of Southern California, where Mexican bírria – a spicy and much-eaten goat stew– is hardly a rarity.

But there are less common goat delicacies in these parts that merit a try. Notably is a savory Hatian dish of marinated, slow-roasted goat, referred to there as cabrit or kabrit.

Hatian-style cabrit is very different from bírria, in which the goat meat is served with a spicy broth. But done right, no broth is needed, as the meat is delectably tender. Those who grew up with it sing its praises, although there are the inevitable goat-related childhood stories.

Gary Dauphin, a Los Angeles writer and director of new media for KCET, remembers his first goat dinner while visiting his grandmother:

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'Hispanic-flavored dishes' and other ethnic-inspired, um, treats


Cinco de Mayo has come and gone, but its effect on that peculiar cuisine known as "ethnic-inspired" continues. For a limited time only, at least.

This morning I ventured into an International House of Pancakes to try one of a few Cinco de Mayo-related items promoted in a recent news release as "Hispanic-flavored dishes." I didn't think that flavor had been popular since the Spanish conquistadors stumbled upon the Caribs, but what do I know? The flavor in question didn't involve humans, fortunately, but chilaquiles.

From the news release:

With ethnic-inspired entrees predicted to be the top breakfast food trend of the year, IHOP, one of America's favorite restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is turning up the heat with Hispanic-flavored dishes headlining its new Double Cheese Scrambles limited time offer.

Inspired by the traditional Mexican dish chilaquiles, IHOP's new Tortilla Scrambles feature fluffy scrambled eggs with crispy yet soft tortilla chips, enchilada sauce with melted jack and cheddar cheeses topped with sour cream and chopped green onions.

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'Click if you like our champurrado:' Taqueros embrace social media

Photo by mswine/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Tacos and champurrado, hot off a taco truck, December 2006

The other day, I mentioned in a conversation that I'd begun following the acclaimed Nina's Food (@BreedStScene) on Twitter. The old-school Boyle Heights quesadilla expert, who placed first in last year's L.A. Vendy Awards, has a Twitter feed that's sporadic but has more than 1,200 followers. How great it would be, my friend mused, if more traditional vendors like Nina's embraced social media and prospered. "Some of them could do pretty well," he said.

Turns out there are quite a few taqueros who have had this idea, embracing the ways of the non-taco trucks that sell things like, say, grilled cheese. Earlier this week, the blog LA Taco published a list of some traditional taco trucks that have taken to the Libro de Caras, i.e. Facebook.

I liked this no-nonsense entry from Tacos El Gallito last month:

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Five Valentine meals to share with your amor

Photo by jonathanb1989/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Their romantic dinner might taste like plastic - better to share some shabu shabu or an Ethiopian stew.

Photo by jonathanb1989/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Their romantic dinner might taste like plastic - better to share some shabu shabu or an Ethiopian stew.

Photo by jonathanb1989/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Their romantic dinner might taste like plastic - better to share some shabu shabu or an Ethiopian stew.

Photo by jonathanb1989/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Their romantic dinner might taste like plastic - better to share some shabu shabu or an Ethiopian stew.


Forget momentarily about chocolate, oysters and the rest of the usual food suggestions that accompany Valentine’s Day, about aphrodisiacs and expensive dinners. As a favor to lovestruck foodies in the Los Angeles area, a few colleagues and I recently came up with an unscientific but well-loved list of some of the best date-friendly offerings to come out of our immigrant enclaves.

Five favorites:

Ethiopian There’s something very intimate about sharing a meal from the same dish, eaten with your hands. The spongy injera bread serves as a both plate and utensil with which to scoop up savory stews, called wot, and other dishes, making the meal a tactile experience. The food itself is fragrant, seasoned with garlic, ginger and other spices.

One place to find it: Nyala at 1076 South Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-5918

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