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San Diegans, take a bow. You’ve played a beefy — not to mention fishy — role in the evolution of Mexican food in the U.S. Sure, you’re not Los Angeles (where the taco first took root) or San Francisco (home of the Mission burrito), but you have some bragging rights.
Just ask Gustavo Arellano, the guy who’s perhaps the leading historian of American Mexican food. We did just that in honor of the 100th anniversary of the taco’s appearance in our country.
Arellano is best known as the writer behind the syndicated alternative-newspaper column “¡Ask a Mexican!” but he’s developed impressive journalistic chops as a reporter with Orange County’s OC Weekly. Most importantly for our purposes, he wrote the well-received 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” which explores the origins of taquitos, tortillas, tamales and even the combination plate. (Just make sure you’re not a couple tacos short of one, if you know what I mean. If you don’t know what I mean, look it up.)
San Diego is responsible for introducing Americans to two mouth-watering Mexican dishes: the fish taco and the California burrito. “The fish taco first popped up in the U.S. through Ralph Rubio, who was the first introduce it,” Arellano said. “It’s more of a Southern California thing, but it’s slowly spreading across the United States.”
Rubio’s, the fish taco chain born in a walk-up taco stand in the Mission Bay area, now has 190 restaurants in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. The legend goes that the Rubio brought fish tacos here after discovering them in San Felipe while on spring break in 1974. A few years later, he opened his first restaurant.
In Mexico, the fish taco is “a regional taco,” Arellano said. “Fish tacos really only exist really in Mexico on the Pacific Coast and around the Sea of Cortés and Gulf of Mexico. You won’t find them on the east side of the ocean.”
Arellano said he likes a fish taco with breaded, short filets. Crucial elements include slaw, a tangy crema fresca, hot sauce and “a good corn tortilla that’s not going to disintegrate and get soggy and disgusting.”
As for the California burrito, it’s important to get a few things straight.
California burrito means different things to different people, as Arellano explained in a 2011 column, there have been other California burritos — gasp! — “and what most of the world knows as a California burrito isn’t what San Diegans call the California burrito.”
The origin of California burritos are murky, but Arellano thinks they were have been invented at a ‘berto’s taco shop here. (What’s a ‘berto’s taco shop? You must be new. Stand by.)
One thing is clear: California burritos — the local kind — are everywhere in San Diego. The website Thrillist has a helpful Top 10 list for your dining pleasure, topped by the small Nico’s chain. Even GQ has a helpful listing of local standouts.
I asked Arellano about what goes into the perfect California burrito. This is when he confessed that he’s not a fan of mushy food like … guacamole and avocado. “I know this is heresy,” he said.
After stunned silence, I allowed him to continue. “I like carne asada, a little bit of beans and rice, not too much, put in some onions, maybe some cilantro, some sour cream. Then you just load in those french fries.”
Yes, newcomers, California burritos come with french fries inside. That’s their trademark. “Make sure they’re hot. It has to be served hot and fresh,” Arellano said. “You have to take that first bite and take that glass of water because it’s still burning. Once you’ve exposed the innards, you can let it cool down.”
So what about those ‘berto’s taco shops? They’re everywhere in San Diego: Roberto’s, Gualberto’s, Jilberto’s, Aliberto’s, Rigoberto’s, and on and on. One of them seems to have invented the California burrito a few decades ago, but it’s not clear which one. But we do know — thinks to Arellano — where they came from.
“They all descend from Roberto’s,” he said, the creation of a man named Roberto Robledo, who opened up four stands named after himself in late ’60s and early ’70s after arriving in the U.S. from Mexico. “He’d bring over his cousins and relatives and they decided to buy him out,” Arellano said. But his kin didn’t have enough money for the rights to the name, so they tried out variations on the theme. “Last time I checked, you have more than 200 establishments in San Diego County with ‘bertos in the name, and that doesn’t include the rip-offs. It’s a really amazing story.”
You could, of course, go to Mexico for “authentic” Mexican food. Not that Arellano cares about so-called authenticity. “If you think it’s Mexican food, it’s Mexican food!” But he does like eating in Tijuana, which is in the middle of a rebirth as a culinary destination. “There are all these great restaurant that are super cheap and affordable,” he said. “People say it’s so dangerous. But if you’re white, you’re a god in Tijuana. The bad people know not to mess with you. If a white person is messed with, the Guns of Navarone would come down.”
As for the current status of Mexican food here in the U.S., Arellano says it’s in very good shape. When I mentioned that my whiter-than-white-bread Miracle Whip-loving family knew nothing at all about bagels or yogurt or Thai food in the 1970s and 1980s but loved Mexican and Italian food, he said that makes total sense: Mexican food, like Italian and Chinese food, is “simultaneously ethnic and mainstream for the American consumer… If you’re going to be an American, this is what we eat.”
He adds: “When a new group arrives, there’s always going to be tension. The first thing the majority group does is make fun of their food: Mexicans as beaners and greasers, the French as frog eaters, the English as limeys. But the fact that Americans love Mexican food is really a start because at least you’ve embraced the food. It seems like a flippant analysis, but look at history. It’s very easy to dismiss a bunch of college kids foraging at Chipotle, but that’s progress, it absolutely is.”