One theme that is consistent throughout Taco USA is the spotlighting of American attitudes toward Mexican food. In chapter seven, Arellano quotes Robb Walsh, a multiple James Beard award winner, about his attitude toward Mexican food (emphasis my own.)
El Chico’s efforts inspired others, Anglos and Mexicans alike, to open Tex-Mex restaurants outside of Texas. This was the food that Robb Walsh, winner of multiple James Beard awards for his exhaustively researched, wonderfully written forays into Texas cuisine, grew to long for as a child moving around the United States during the 1960s. “There’s something about Tex-Mex that has the American comfort food angle,” he says, “and yet it’s a bicultural food. It’s cuisine without pretension.”
Robb Walsh probably meant this as a compliment to the humble yet delicious nature of Mexican food. But I’ve always thought it to be interesting how certain foods are allowed and even expected to be more expensive such as French and Italian. Think “fancy date night” foods. Does Mexican food make that conventional list along with European cuisines?
There are some foods that are just expected to be cheap. I’ve heard friends complain about the prices of Mexican, Chinese, and Indian food, for example. People tend to balk when their prices more accurately reflect the labor and money put into their preparation; these same individuals will gladly pay $12 for a plate of pasta.
Walsh’s comment unintentionally encapsulates this very American attitude toward Mexican food and the labor of Mexican people. In an article for NPR, Vietnamese restauranteur Diep Tran writes about the American obsession with “cheap eats” and the way it harms immigrants of color:
This view of people of color as sources of “cheap” labor bleeds into our restaurant culture: Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap. And so pulling together a “cheap eats” list rather than, say, an “affordable eats” list both invokes that history and reinforces it by prioritizing price at the expense of labor.
At my restaurant, an appetizer of spring rolls is $7. A chicken banh mi with house-made mayo and a side of fries or slaw is $12. A chicken pho is $11. I use sustainably grown chickens; the vegetables are from the farmers market. My staff are paid well over minimum wage. Generally, though, my prices are compared not to other restaurants that use sustainable ingredients and work towards paying their workers a living wage, but to Vietnamese restaurants where bowls of pho run $7, banh mis are $3 (or you can buy two and get one free). And because of that focus on price above all else, I’ve been criticized for being too expensive. I’ve been told flatly by Yelpers, customers and food reviewers that my restaurant is too expensive “for Vietnamese food.”
Mexican food is delicious, but not elevated enough on its own—for example, not peddled to the American masses by someone like Rick Bayless—to demand a higher price, or to be considered fancy. To use Walsh’s word, pretentious. Mexican food cannot be pretentious because it, and the labor of the people who craft it, is too undervalued to be anything but a cheap novelty.