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HOMESTYLE: One of Guisados tacos.
Sophia Lee
HOMESTYLE: One of Guisados tacos.

Beyond nachos

Lifestyle | The push for authentic cultural dishes has opened the door to a new breed of Mexican-American food

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

Armando De La Torre, 53, a third-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Los Angeles, fondly remembers scampering back home from school every afternoon to the spice-woven aromas of braising chicharrones simmering in a heavy pot on the stove. The crispy pork rinds, stewed until soft and slurpy and soaked in savory juices and vegetables, filled his little stomach. 

De La Torre, with his son Armando Jr. working beside him, serves the same childhood dish to his customers at two (soon three) L.A. sites of Guisados, a family-run taqueria that serves stews and braises (Guisados literally means “stewed”) over thick, fresh-slapped tortillas. Guisados is one of the many homestyle Mexican restaurants sprouting up across the United States that serve what many call “authentic” food. 

That’s a change. Mexican-American food has for decades conjured images of cheese-laden nachos, and purist foodies have disdained it; but burritos, quesadillas, and chimichangas are gradually shedding the “Mexican” part of their identity and becoming simply “American”—another tasty addition to the ever-churning melting pot.

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Food writer Bill Esparza says restaurants like Guisados are the “poster child of the new breed of Mexican-American food.” Dishes such as the inky mole poblano (a rich sauce ground from dried chiles, fruits, nuts, and chocolate) and tongue-burning cochinita pibil (Yucatan slow-roasted pork) now retain recognizable flavors and traditions. Meanwhile, Mexican fusion is still gaining steam, which worries some chefs and food writers: In this age of foodies and celebrity chefs, hunger for authenticity clashes with a thrill for the exotic and innovative. 

For example, Baja Med chefs in Baja California, just across the border from San Diego, serve fish tacos fried Japanese tempura-style and drizzled with olive oil. Chef John Sedlar of Rivera, a fine-dining Latino restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, doesn’t like watching young Mexican chefs showing off fancy molecular gastronomy and fusion techniques instead of presenting iconic dishes from their regions: “Mexican chefs have become so internationalized that they are sanitizing Mexico out of their food.”

The trend is spreading as other nations adopt versions of Mexican cuisine—usually the Americanized kind—and put their own touches on it. To Esparza, Mexican food is “one of the hottest rising cuisines worldwide,” though it might not always be recognizable once it mixes with foreign palates. For example, Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck’s slapping Korean grilled meats onto corn tortillas has sent waves across states and overseas. It’s even circled back to Korea, where people devour kimchee sautéed with carnitas, slathered over fries with bubbling cheese, and topped by pickled jalapenos. 

Food historian Jeffrey Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, has tucked into the Mexican hybrids such as cumin-infused chili con carne from Texas, green-chile-laden enchiladas with blue corn tortillas from New Mexico, gooey carne asada fries from San Diego, and bloated Mission-style burritos from San Francisco. “Just because they’re different doesn’t make them any less Mexican,” Pilcher said, using the packaged crunchy taco shell as an example. Some call it “the McDonald-ization of the tortilla,” but Mexican immigrants invented the golden taco shells to adjust to their new surroundings and clientele. 

Still, Guisados’ De La Torre continues to emphasize simple, homestyle braises. His favorite memories circle around such dishes: helping his mother pick stones out of beans; watching her turn those humble legumes into a thick, soul-warming stew; and chopping up grilled meats for tacos during big family outdoor feasts.  

When he first started out, his unfamiliar dishes confused customers. “Carne asada, carne asada, carne asada,” chanted De La Torre: Customers just asked for a standard grilled meat dish. Now, even the gringos request spicier and spicier dishes—so he created the fiery chiles torreados, a five-chile blend that roasts mouths, stings fingers, and expands the melting pot.

Applying Knox

Duncan 1800/iStock

Simonetta Carr has written seven books in her series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers. Researching and writing books about Christian leaders as varied as Anselm, Lady Jane Grey, and John Calvin have affected Carr’s spiritual walk, she says, citing as an example the hope she gained from Athanasius’ letters with their “amazing hope for heaven and the resurrection.”

Carr needed that hope as she tried to help one of her eight children, a young adult who struggled with symptoms of schizophrenia that worsened in March 2013. She was working on a biography of John Knox, the 16th-century reformer whom she found to be “very humble, very real.” Knox’s letters about his troubles, which strongly emphasized salvation by grace through faith, became all the more important to her as her troubled son had unwanted thoughts and told Carr he couldn’t understand what was going on in his own mind.

Knox’s theology helped Carr see that her son’s mental illness didn’t define his relationship to God: “Many times [Knox] was discouraged … but also very, very persuaded of salvation by grace through faith alone. Which was very comforting to me.” As Knox dealt with various trials—a brush with death as a prisoner, the loss of his wife, and challenges to Christian orthodoxy—he kept his eyes on God and trusted His promise to sustain His people. 

Four months ago Carr’s troubled 21-year-old died. In her new biography, Carr paraphrases Knox’s emphasis on going “directly to God in prayer, running to him as a wild deer runs to the river in the burning heat of the day.” Carr heeds that advice as she seeks reassurance that she will see her son again: “Like Knox was saying, the only refuge, the only hope you have is in the Word and God’s promises.” —Emily Whitten

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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