It would be hard to find the pendejo who would argue with a straight face that Mexican food isn’t one of the foundational cuisines of the United States. But there are still two big myths about Mexican food in America: that there is a single, coherent entity called “Mexican food,” and that its most everyday forms are somehow less legitimate, less vital, and simply less good than its most revered incarnations, which are seen as somehow more genuine, more distinct, and above all, more authentic — which, within the wasteland that is American consumer culture, has become our most cherished value, whether we’re talking about politicians or picaditas.
But from NYC to LA, from Georgia to Oregon, and everywhere in between, there are as many homegrown Mexican foods as there are ways to make guacamole — not even counting the ones that use peas. The bodega taqueria is slowly remolding New York’s long-derided Mexican food scene in the image of Poblano cuisine; birria, the fiery red meat stew of Jalisco, is increasingly the default winter warmer in Detroit’s Mexican restaurants; in Chicago, which has the second-largest Mexican population in the country, longstanding carnitas traditions and fine-dining mole preparations help define the city’s culinary landscape; Arizona’s distinct collection of regional specialties only grows more iconic with the introduction of Sonoran-style sushi to Tucson; and though brisket makes more noise these days, is there any question that Tex-Mex, the final form of border ranch cooking, is the One True Cuisine of the Lone Star State?
The warped lens of “authenticity” may be applied by Yelp junkies to many cuisines — long after the heat death of the universe would be too soon to hear someone jabber about “hole-in-the-wall” noodle joints again — but none are quite so distorted by that perspective as Mexican food, which is often viewed, even by those who style themselves as authorities, as a platform for a never-ending Authenticity Olympics. Few would deny the pleasures of barbacoa in its most rustic or traditional forms, but what could be more authentic than the Parmesan-dusted Kansas City taco or the cheesy, curry-dipped roti quesadilla of Yuba City — each the organic product of two distinct communities thrown together by circumstances of labor, migration, and institutionalized racism?
The United States of Mexican Food is about these two ideas: that regional Mexican food doesn’t stop at the border, and that the dishes and cuisines that have developed across the country — which are all authentic to a specific people, place, and time — aren’t just frequently delicious, they’re worthy of the same reverence as the most hallowed icons of Mexican cuisine. Except for a sickly, sad salad bowl from Chipotle — those, no one should eat.
Guest editors: Gustavo Arellano, Bill Esparza | Editorial Leads: Matt Buchanan, Carolyn Alburger, Missy Frederick, Sonia Chopra | Editors: Ashok Selvam, Beth McKibben, Delia Jo Ramsey, Nadia Chaudhury, Amy McCarthy, Brenna Houck, Brooke Jackson-Glidden, Ellen Fort, Candice Woo, Susan Stapleton, Olee Fowler, Serena Dai, Rachel Vigoda, Rafe Bartholomew, Erin DeJesus, Lesley Suter, Monica Burton | Illustrations: Naya-Cheyenne | Creative director: Brittany Holloway-Brown | Fact checking: Andrea López-Cruzado, Liliana Michelena | Copy editors: Emma Alpern, Rachel P. Kreiter | Engagement: Milly McGuinness, Adam Moussa | Project manager: Ellie Krupnick | Special thanks to Clair Lorell, Daniel Gerzina, Erin Perkins, Erin Russell, Joy Summers, Gabe Guarente, Gabe Hiatt, Matthew Kang, Megan Hill, Stefanie Tuder, Rachel Blumenthal, Amanda Kludt